In education, student subgroup generally refers to any group of students who share similar characteristics, such as gender identification, racial or ethnic identification, socioeconomic status, physical or learning disabilities, language abilities, or school-assigned classifications (e.g., special-education students). While “student subgroup” may be applied informally to any number of locally defined groups of students, the term typically refers to specific categories of students defined in federal and state legislation (and related rules and regulations) or used in data-collection processes, public reporting, research studies, statistical analyses, and other formal governmental or academic mechanisms employed to track the educational performance and attainment of particular groups of students.
In the United States, however, the term student subgroup is predominantly associated with a specific set of federally defined student subgroups for which public-education data are collected and reported by schools, districts, and state education agencies in accordance with requirements outlined in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires states to publish annual public reports on the educational performance of students across several distinct subgroup classifications outlined in Section 1111 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: economically disadvantaged students, students from major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency.
Because the student subgroups widely used in public education and related data reporting are typically determined by legislation and regulatory guidance, it should be noted that student subgroups are (1) subject to regular modification or redefinition when applicable laws, rules, or regulations change, and are (2) defined in complex technical documentation that may be difficult to parse and interpret, even for specialists in the field. For these reasons, it is important to determine precisely how a student subgroup is being used or defined—and why—when investigating or reporting on the topic.
The following section provides a brief overview of a few of the most common student subgroups used in public education:
- Gender Subgroups: The two gender subgroups widely used in public education are male and female. While historically these student subgroups have not been controversial, growing awareness of and sensitivity to students identifying as transgender poses potential complications for this approach to subgroup classification.
- Racial and Ethnic Subgroups: When the law was originally passed, the No Child Left Behind Act required states to report data for the following racial and ethnic subgroups: (1) African American or Black, (2) American Indian or Alaska Native, (3) Asian or Pacific Islander, (4) Hispanic, and (5) White. Following changes in federal reporting guidelines for racial and ethnic data in 2007, a new subgroup of “two or more races” was introduced, among other modifications. Students who identify themselves as being of more than one major racial or ethnic group are now reported as part of this subgroup by state education agencies (and cannot be counted as part of any other racial or ethnic subgroup). In addition to the racial and ethnic subgroups required by the No Child Left Behind Act and used for the purposes of official federal reporting, some states or school districts may choose to collect and report education data on other racial and ethnic subgroups for which they have statistically large student populations. For example, Filipino, Puerto Rican, or Hmong students may be reported separately by some districts or states, typically because they have large populations of these students and they want to track and monitor student achievement the groups.
- Students with Disabilities Subgroup: Any student with an Individualized Education Program, as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is reported in the “students with disabilities” subgroup. Students are counted as part of this subgroup for the entire time they are receiving special-education services in a public school and for two years after exiting a special-education program.
- Students with Limited English Proficiency Subgroup: Students who are classified by their school as “limited English proficient,” often abbreviated as LEP, are reported in this subgroup. In general, districts and schools will use English-language tests or other forms of assessment to determine whether students are proficient in the English language. Students who have been designated as limited English proficient may continue to be counted in this subgroup for two years after they are deemed proficient in English. For a more detailed discussions of this topic, see English-language learner, long-term English learner, and the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance on limited English proficient students.
- Economically Disadvantaged Subgroup: Historically, schools, districts, and governmental agencies have defined students as “economically disadvantaged” based on their eligibility to receive free or reduced-price lunch under the National School Lunch Program. In light of recent changes to the administrative guidelines for the program, however, which may result in more schools providing all students with free lunches regardless of eligibility, schools, districts, and state education agencies may have to consider alternative mechanisms to monitor economically disadvantaged student populations in the future.
- Migrant Subgroup: Students are assigned “migrant status” when a parent or guardian’s principal means of livelihood is migratory work, typically in the agricultural or fishing industries. Migrant students move frequently from one school district to another as their parent or guardian obtains temporary or seasonal employment. The U.S. Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program oversees the relevant regulations and definitions for this student subgroup.
Before the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, most state education agencies and school districts only collected aggregate data on students enrolled in public schools—i.e., data on the overall performance of all students in a given school or district. Today, however, all 50 states in the United States have systems that collect and maintain student-level data, not just aggregate records, which allows state education agencies to produce both aggregate and disaggregated reports on school and student performance. Specifically, states can now report on the academic achievement and educational attainment across the major student subgroups described above.
While data such as high school graduation rates or average test scores can yield a variety of important insights, a significant number of school leaders, researchers, education reformers, and policy makers have advocated in recent years for the importance of collecting, tracking, and monitoring data on student subgroups for the purpose of exposing underlying trends and issues such as achievement gaps, opportunity gaps, learning gaps, and other inequities in the public-education system. If, for example, the only graduation information available are annual rates for schools, this data may hide significant disparities in graduation rates for students from low-income households, students of color, students with disabilities, or students who are not proficient in the English language. It’s possible for a school’s graduation rate to appear strong overall—say, 90 percent—but when the data are disaggregated for different student subgroups, the different graduation rates may reveal, for example, that more than 50 percent of the African American and Hispanic students in the school fail to graduate, or that only 25 percent of English-language learners earn a diploma.
When data are reported for different student subgroups, educators also have more detailed information about the educational performance and learning needs of specific groups of students, which allows them to design more appropriate or effective educational experiences and academic support. For example, student-subgroup data may help school leaders and educators to direct limited resources—such as funding, staff time, or social services—where they are needed most (i.e., to those groups of students who are the furthest behind, struggling the most academically, or at greatest risk of dropping out).
Generally speaking, the primary purpose of collecting and reporting data on different student subgroups is to provide useful information about the performance of public schools and students to those who are monitoring public schools or working to improve them. While both aggregate and subgroup data are essential to understanding how the public-education system is working, district-level or school-level reports (i.e., aggregate data) are generally limited to the identification of broader trends and patterns in education, while subgroup data is used to identify deeper underlying problems—specifically, disparities in educational performance and attainment across different student groups.
While the use of student subgroups is generally not the objective of significant debate in public education (most educators, school leaders, policy makers, and reformers typically support the practice), the act of classifying and sorting individuals into broad groups tends to give rise to some level of debate or controversy. For example, a student’s gender, racial, or ethnic identification may not easily fit into or be accurately described by existing student subgroups, and consequently discussion, debate, or dispute may arise when students identify as transgender or mixed race.
In addition, social stigma associated with poverty, disability, language ability, or citizenship status—and the broader political and societal debates about these issues—may also intersect in a variety of ways with the definition, classification, and public reporting of student subgroups in education. For example, given the culturally sensitive and often ideologically contentious nature of the peripheral issues raised by the participation of non-English-speaking students in the American public-education system—including politicized debates related to citizenship status, English primacy, immigration reform, and social-services eligibility for non-citizens—it is perhaps unsurprising that students who are not proficient in English, and the instructional methods used to educate them, can become a source of debate (e.g., a significant number of states have adopted “English as the official language” statutes, and citizen referendums have passed in other states prohibiting instruction in Spanish or other languages except in special cases—see dual-language education for a related discussion).