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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Small Student Subgroups and Accountability: How Can We Ensure That All Students Receive the Support They Deserve?
By Kevin Kelly and Lauren Forrow

Small Student Subgroups and Accountability: How Can We Ensure That All Students Receive the Support They Deserve?

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to identify schools that have at least one subgroup of students falling behind. Although states define falling behind differently, they all examine performance across multiple dimensions, such as the percentage who pass statewide exams and the percentage who are chronically absent. The schools in which subgroups are falling behind, called Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) schools, receive additional support from the state and are expected to improve the performance of the underperforming subgroups.

Because performance information might not be reliable, it is difficult to assess subgroup performance when the subgroup contains few students; for example, in a subgroup with only three students, one student's behavior could make the difference between an unusually high and an unusually low chronic absenteeism attendance rate. States typically address this concern by including a performance dimension in a subgroup's performance assessment only if the number of students in the subgroup with data on that performance dimension exceeds a minimum threshold determined by the state. For example, if the state threshold is 20 students, a subgroup with 25 students providing attendance data and 15 students taking statewide exams would be assessed on attendance but not on exam results. Situations such as this often occur in elementary schools and in high schools, because not all grades in those schools take state assessments—unlike middle schools, in which all grades have state assessments.

In our recent study for the Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic, we found that two states' minimum thresholds largely explain why some types of schools and subgroups are singled out more often for TSI than others. In both states, many schools identified as TSI were middle schools that had underperforming students with disabilities. Students with disabilities were less likely to pass statewide exams than the average student, which is also true nationwide. But middle schools were far more likely than elementary or high schools to meet the sample size threshold for the students with disabilities subgroup on this dimension of performance. In elementary and high schools, the number of students with disabilities taking state assessments more often fell below the minimum threshold—which made their schools less likely to be identified for TSI even if their students with disabilities subgroups performed no better than similar subgroups in identified schools.

Our findings, summarized in this infographic, don't suggest that states are identifying the wrong schools for TSI; middle school students with disabilities do need additional support. But the importance of the sample size threshold in the overall assessment suggests that some schools with underperforming students with disabilities are not identified for TSI simply because too few students in the subgroup take statewide exams. To provide the support these students need, state officials must tackle a difficult aspect of accountability: how to assess the performance of small subgroups.

This issue, which raises data privacy and statistical reliability concerns, has no easy solution. But there are some paths forward that researchers and state officials can explore together. For example, states could consider pooling smaller subgroups into super subgroups that have enough students to meet the minimum sample size threshold. Through partnerships such as those fostered through the Regional Educational Laboratories, state officials and researchers can work together to develop solutions that ensure all students receive the support they deserve.