Students in Indiana’s smallest schools struggle as enrollment continues to decline

A report released Wednesday by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research shows that students enrolled in school districts with less than 2,000 students scored lower on state-standardized exams and lack the same amount of access to high-level courses. (Getty Images)
Casey Smith
Indiana Capital Chronicle

INDIANAPOLIS — Academic performance in the state’s smallest schools — where a fifth of Hoosier students are enrolled — significantly lags behind larger schools, according to new research.

The analysis lends support to a push to consolidate at least some of the state’s rural schools and increase district sizes, despite criticism by local and statewide policymakers.


A report released Wednesday by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research shows that students enrolled in school districts with less than 2,000 students scored lower on state-standardized exams and lack the same amount of access to high-level courses.

The findings also indicate less college preparation and lower college enrollment rates at smaller schools.

Those school districts additionally are getting smaller, exacerbating the challenges facing their students, researchers said.

The study was commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and follows up on a similar one done in 2017. The Chamber’s recently released Indiana Prosperity 2035 plan calls for a reduction “by half the number of very small school districts with enrollments below 2,000 students.”

“When an entire K-12 school district is very small, the research clearly shows a significant negative difference in student learning, course offerings and post-graduation educational opportunities,” Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber, said in a news release. “It’s an uncomfortable reality and problem, but when one in five Hoosier students are enrolled in these very small districts, we are not only hurting these kids and their economic prosperity, but also small communities and our state’s future.”

Smaller schools continue to struggle

The study analyzed student performance data, graduation rates, postsecondary education enrollment, advanced course offerings and other factors for every K-12 school district in Indiana.

The smaller districts constitute 56% of Indiana’s 290 school districts and are mostly concentrated in small communities and rural areas of the state.

About 20% of the state’s K-12 students are enrolled in districts of less than 2,000 students, according to study data. Almost 5% of Hoosier kids are in a school district with less than 1,000 students.

According to Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) data, Indiana’s smallest school corporation, Medora Community School Corporation, had a K-12 enrollment of 144 students during the 2021-22 school year, and the largest K-12 corporation, Fort Wayne Community Schools, had more than 27,800 students.

In school districts with enrollment levels below 2,000 students, there are “substantial, negative differences” in student performance, access to important higher-level courses, college preparation and college enrollment rates, the study’s researchers noted.

Course offerings differ substantially among school corporations. Only two of the smallest school corporations, where enrollment was less than 500, have students enrolled in a calculus class, for example.

Researchers said that’s a problem, given that enrollment in a high school calculus “has a high association” with college success, particularly in STEM fields.

Students in the smallest corporations are also less likely to enroll in Advanced College Credit Courses — five of the eight corporations at this size have no students enrolled in these courses.

The smallest corporations additionally have a low number of dual credit liberal arts courses, the study shows.

Further, the Indiana Department of Education’s high school course enrollment data shows there are nearly two dozen school corporations that show no enrollment in any AP courses. This includes four of the eight smallest school corporations.

Many smaller corporations don’t offer any AP STEM courses, either.

Even so, enrollment in the few higher-level courses that are offered “is quite high,” suggesting to researchers that students are taking the courses when they’re available.

“Together these findings suggest that students attending small school corporations have less access to rigorous coursework, which may affect post-secondary outcomes,” researchers wrote in their analysis.

Smaller school corporations have the lowest percentage of 21st Century Scholar enrollees who complete the Scholar Success Program and the lowest percentage of high school graduates who complete the FAFSA form. The small schools also have the lowest college attendance rates.

ILEARN and IREAD exam passage rates are lower, too, the study said. Average ILEARN scores are more than 20% lower for the state’s smallest school districts than in those with enrollments of 2,000 to 2,999 students.

Consolidating schools

Previous studies showed that around 2,000 students is the minimum for school corporations in Indiana to support adequate student performance. But more than half of Indiana’s school corporations had K-12 enrollment lower than 2,000 in 2022.

And small school districts are only getting smaller, according to the research. About 74% of the 162 districts with less than 2,000 students saw declining enrollments over the last decade.


Ball State researchers emphasized that increasing school corporation size to around 2,000 students has the potential to reduce per pupil cost and free up funds for classroom instruction or other purposes — changes that could improve the educational outcomes of students.

They said further that a more modest increase to student enrollment in the state’s smallest school districts can improve performance, as well.

Increasing district size to at least 1,000 students is associated with a 13-percentage point increase in students passing the eighth-grade ILEARN test, a 10-point increase in IREAD exam passage rates and a 17-point increase in the number of high school graduates going to college, the study said.

Just a 1% increase in enrollment is shown to be associated with almost a 9% increase in SAT composite scores or over 90 points on average.

“Indiana is operating a two-tiered public education system. Students in very small school corporations are being held back without access to vital educational opportunities because the economics of providing for a quality education simply don’t work,” Brinegar said in his statement. “Indiana must get serious about increasing the size and course offerings available to Hoosier students in the very smallest school districts. All children, regardless of their ZIP code, have a right to an education to help them succeed.”

The newest research is tied to the Indiana Chamber’s Indiana Prosperity 2035 economic vision plan, which includes goals to improve student performance by merging small districts, sharing services between districts and increasing online access to high-level courses.

It’s not yet clear whether state lawmakers will respond during the 2024 legislative session, slated to begin next week. But discussions about consolidation have been criticized by Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden, who has called for the Indiana Chamber to reexamine its ongoing effort to consolidate rural and small town school corporations.

In a September letter, Doden said that while the goals of such a policy might have some merit, eliminating “small public school districts through consolidation will be seen as a death knell for the millions of Hoosiers who live in small towns and rural communities.”

He has instead called for Indiana to adopt an initiative that would redirect 10% of what the state spends on economic development — around $100 million per year — to small towns and rural communities.

“We need a vision for Indiana that reverses the population decline and makes our small cities and towns a destination to live, work and raise a family as opposed to plans that are perceived to give up on them entirely,” Doden wrote. “For far too long, our state has ignored our small and rural communities and had no plan for them, only giveaways to corporations.”

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The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to giving Hoosiers a comprehensive look inside state government, policy and elections. The site combines daily coverage with in-depth scrutiny, political awareness and insightful commentary.

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