Hoosier school districts with fewer than 2,000 students should consider merging with another small district to reap better test scores, according to a study released last Tuesday.
“Students in small school corporations in Indiana, which comprise 20 percent of total statewide enrollment, are academically disadvantaged,” said Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Consolidation of districts could reduce administrative costs and improve SAT scores, Advanced Placement passing rates, eighth-grade ISTEP scores and passing rates for end-of-course assessments in algebra and biology, the study found.
“Smaller schools have meaningfully worse outcomes in standardized tests and the college preparatory elements — the SAT, the ACT and the AP pass-rate — particularly in mathematics and sciences than do larger schools,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research.
The study, commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation, was conducted by Ball State’s CBER.
In 2014, 154 of Indiana’s 289 schools corporations had enrollments of fewer than 2,000 students. Of the smaller school corporations, 94 percent were contiguous with another small district.
The enrollment figure of 2,000 was chosen for the study because it has been identified in previous studies as the minimum number for efficiency.
Small districts that increase their enrollment to around 2,000 could experience an increase in the average student’s performance on SAT of 20.5 points and a 14.9 percent increase in students passing AP exams.
A district merger could also yield a 5 percent point increase in eighth-grade ISTEP pass rate and an additional 4 percentage point increased in end-of-course assessments in algebra and biology.
The size of a district, however, did not impact the passing rate for fourth-grade ISTEP or 10th-grade end-of-course assessments in English, Hicks said.
A district with more than 50,000 students, however, becomes problematic, Hicks said. Indiana’s largest districts include Indianapolis Public Schools at 30,000 students, South Bend Community Schools at 19,300 and Vigo County Schools at 15,400. The smallest districts include Union School Corporation in Randolph County at about 336 and Medora Community Schools in Jackson County at 205.
Enrollment declines have been seen in numerous districts, knocking some like Decatur County Community Schools and Brown County Schools closer to the 2,000-student mark.
Enrollment declines are due primarily to population shifts to urban centers and the loss of manufacturing jobs among other factors, Hicks said.
In Indiana, 85 school districts had enrollment declines of 100 or more from 2006 to 2014, the study found.
“They’re not going to grow their way out of this problem. It’s only going to get worse,” Brinegar said.
Brinegar applauded action by the recent Indiana General Assembly that provided consolidating school districts with a one-time incentive of $250 per student. The grant can go towards the professional fees associated with the consolidation or for teacher stipends.
Crothersville Superintendent Disagrees
However, Crothersville Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Terry Goodin doesn’t share the view that larger schools produce better students. “The push against small schools is now mainstream as statewide there is movement toward consolidation of small schools with larger ones,” said Goodin, who is also a State Representative.
The state Chamber of Commerce believes businesses must be innovative to remain viable, he said.
“Here at Crothersville we are following the Chamber of Commerce’s lead in our business of educating our students by being innovative,” said the local school leader.
He points out that Crothersville has some advantages that some of the state’s other small schools do not.
“Crothersville is ahead of the curve on an important educational argument,” he said. “Our partnerships with Ivy Tech, Austin High School and Southwestern High School provides us the best of both worlds: access to more academic programs in a small school setting.”
As long as we can continue to be innovative there should be no word or need to consolidate, Goodin said.
Scott L. Miley, CNHI Statehouse Bureau, contributed to this story.