District size study should get scrutiny

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is sparking important discussion with a recent study of the relationship between school district size and student performance. But the study shouldn’t stand as the last word on the subject. And the chamber’s spin – suggesting it proves bigger school districts are better, up to a certain size – shouldn’t go unchallenged.

Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research conducted the study for the chamber. It concludes that, on average, students in districts with over 2,000 students have higher test scores and access to more advanced and varied courses than students in districts with fewer than 1,000 students.

Over half of Indiana’s school districts have fewer than 2,000 students and nearly 20 percent have fewer than 1,000 students. Many are contiguous to other small districts. The implication is that small districts should look for opportunities to consolidate. Probably some of them should.

But in some cases, the performance differences between large and small school districts aren’t very large. And they aren’t at all consistent. You can’t draw a straight line that correlates school district size with various measures of student performance.

Districts with between 2,000 and 3,000 students – the supposed sweet spot for operational efficiency – have the highest average SAT scores and some of the highest ISTEP passing rates. But bigger districts, with over 5,000 students, have higher passing rates for Advanced Placement exams. And the state’s smallest districts, with under 1,500 students, do best on English-language arts end-of-course tests.

Chris Lagoni, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, said the lack of consistency and the relatively weak correlation between district size and student performance suggest we should hesitate to create state policy based on the study. He said the focus on averages masks a lot of variation among small and large districts. Continue reading