Attendance becomes a national performance goal

Attendance Institute
Posted Jan 2, 2017

When Congress revised the nation’s primary law governing K-12 schools in 2012, there was an effort to scale back emphasis on standardized test scores and get states to look creatively at how to measure student performance.

Today, the U.S. Department of Education has received plans from each state on how they will comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. And the most common accountability measure being used along with test scores is attendance.

The research is clear, children who regularly attend school are more likely to have better outcomes–both in the short- and long-term–than those who accumulate more absences. The trends are set with the youngest learners, high numbers of absences are associated with lagging development of the social skills needed to persist in school, weaker reading skills and higher retention rates.

Once students reach middle school, if they are labeled chronically absent in any year between 8th and 12th grades, studies have shown they are up to 7.5 times more likely to drop out than their peers. And when students drop out of school, they have a higher likelihood of coming into contact with the juvenile justice system and having lower lifetime earnings.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that 36 states and the District of Columbia have committed to tracking chronic student absenteeism and using that data to partially inform school accountability under ESSA.

The law, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, gives states a lot more flexibility in deciding how to measure student success and how to work with schools that are not meeting that standard.

Congress did require, however, that three performance factors had to be included in every state system: test scores; high school graduation rates; and the progress of English learners toward proficiency.

At minimum, states had to choose one more non-academic indicator that would relate to school quality or student success.

A recent analysis of every state ESSA plan conducted by the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University found that policymakers in more than 70 percent of states, as well as the District of Columbia, have adopted chronic absenteeism as their fifth indicator.

Authors of the report suggest that chronic absenteeism is one of the best non-academic indicators, because poor attendance can be a red flag that alerts school personnel to problems faced by individual students, as well as troubling school-wide trends.

“Done right, holding schools accountable for these absences can encourage educators and community leaders to address the root causes of excused and unexcused absences, whether chronic illness, unsafe communities or a challenging school climate,” authors of the study wrote. “It can encourage schools to tamp down on unduly harsh discipline policies that are pushing students out of school. And it can help close the achievement gaps for disadvantaged students, who experience higher rates of chronic absenteeism than their peers.”

It’s important, they note, that states have consistent definitions of chronic absenteeism, set realistic goals, and provide adequate support for schools and families as they set out to address attendance issues.

At least 27 of the states that included chronic absenteeism in their ESSA state plans define it as missing 10 percent or more of the school year–regardless of whether the absences accumulated were excused, unexcused or if a child was out of school for disciplinary reasons.

While it may seem like a threshold few students would meet, poor attendance is an issue prevalent in every state, and it can affect any student. National data shows that more than 7 million students throughout the country miss three weeks or more of school, and about 20 percent of the nation’s schools report that at least a fifth of their students are chronically absent.

As mentioned prior, chronic absenteeism is calculated by adding both excused and unexcused absences, as well as those caused by school suspensions and other punitive measures. So if a family takes a weeklong vacation outside of the regularly scheduled academic holiday breaks, those five days will contribute to their child’s chronic absentee status, even if they keep up on their assignments. And if that same student stays home sick for day or two here and there throughout the year, it isn’t hard to imagine even the best of students being labeled chronically absent.

And many things can get in the way of regular attendance–be it chronic health problems, a lack of reliable transportation, fear of bullying, troubles at home or minimal access to childcare, which leads to some older students staying home to care for younger siblings.

Some districts in states that included chronic absenteeism in their ESSA plans have already begun working to reduce the rates of student absenteeism. According to the report out of Georgetown University, targeted efforts to improve attendance among 9th grade students in Chicago has led to higher graduation rates, while a mentoring program for chronically absent students contributed to better attendance in New York City.

And in Baltimore, the city’s Department of Social Services visited the homes of every kindergarten to second-grade child who had missed 40 days in the prior year after entering into a data-sharing partnership with the city school district. Social workers found that a third of those children had asthma but no plan for controlling it, so students often stayed home and remained indoors on days when the air was likely to trigger as asthma attack.

Once schools understand what sort of obstacles are getting in the way of students making it to school on time, every day, education officials can better address those issues.

As of September, when the report was published, about 10 of the ESSA state plans that listed chronic absenteeism as the school quality and student success indicator had been approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Many of those which had been submitted paired chronic absenteeism with other measures, including suspension rates, science and social studies achievement, college and career readiness, and the percentage of students reading at grade level.

In Rhode Island, schools will be held accountable not only for chronic absenteeism among students, but among teachers as well. Authors of the report note that the state’s decision to include teacher absenteeism in its fifth indicator makes sense, given recent research from universities such as Harvard, Columbia and Duke, which highlighted the negative impact of teacher absences on student achievement.