Pay Attention EduGuys: Size Does Matter

Up at the Rayburn House Office Building yesterday, it was standing-room only for the throngs of lobbyists, Hill staffers, interns and reporters who turned out for the House Education & Workforce Committee hearing on the so-called “N” size issue. And it turns out, according to most participants, size really does matter after all! In this case, the smaller the better. [Note to readers: “N” size here refers to the minimum number of students in an NCLB subgroup required to trigger that group getting counted at the school level for AYP purposes. In April, the Associated Press found that close to 2 million students’ scores, mostly racial minorities, were not being counted for accountability purposes under NCLB. Good explanations of the law and the problems here (now-infamous AP story) and here (Ed Week’s Lynn Olson).]
Some highlights and takeaways from the hearing:

1. Both Rs and Ds seemed genuinely perplexed and displeased with the huge variation in “N” sizes approved by the Dept of Ed., especially when large #s and %s of minority students’ scores are not counted. AP’s Ben Feller reports here.

2. Secretary Spellings mighta/coulda avoided this whole scene [actually, she literally did avoid it–sent her deputy and I can’t blame her] by getting on top of this “scandal” before the Hill got it, ran with it and packed a hearing room. But her Dept. made its PR problems a lot worse by a) acting surprised at the large # of exclusions that were the direct result of changes to state accountability plans the feds themselves approved and b) not answering their mail from ranking member George Miller (D-CA), a strong supporter of NCLB. Despite these missteps and continuing partisan discord over ed-appropriations, it’s early enough in the reauthorization cycle that bipartisan good will is still plentiful. And this writer believes there’s plenty of room on both sides to maneuver and fix this thing.

3. Maryland rapidly became the darling of the Committee, boasting the smallest “N” size among the states, set at 5 students per subgroup for reporting purposes since the 1990s. MD’s Deputy Supt. Ron Peiffer explained how the state decided to keep it at 5 even after NCLB toughened up accountability for subgroups. In contrast, some states like California use “N” sizes as big as 100, a move that, the AP reported, results in loads of minority kids’ scores not being counted at the school level.

4. The most impressive witness at the hearing was John Brittain of the venerable Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a relative newcomer on the Washington scene and an experienced litigator, NPR commentator, academic and former law school dean. John delivered a polished performance, speaking forthrightly about NCLB as a civil rights law and driving home the dangers of false positives from the undercount. E.g., at the school level, not counting minority groups and students with disabilities in AYP can result in students losing their rights to transfer and free tutoring, as well as other interventions to address achievement gaps.
–Guestblogger Dianne Piche

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