August 31st, 2017

High Quality Attendance Data is More Important than Ever

This is the second in our blog series in which we highlight attendance-related issues that are emerging as states work through the complexities of responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA provides states new flexibility to evaluate school performance using more than just test scores. As this table shows, many state ESSA accountability plans include chronic absenteeism, or other related indicators, as measures of school quality. Beginning in 2018, these schools will be held responsible for meeting student attendance and other achievement goals. (Read our first blog, Making the Most of Attendance Indicators.)

Why is the quality of attendance data so important?

Including chronic absence in accountability systems means that states will depend on these data to identify schools that need extra support or interventions. And more importantly, it means that schools are more likely to have the data they need to intervene throughout the year to prevent student failure and disengagement that is so likely to result from poor attendance. This is the great power of attendance data – it can provide critical, “just-in-time” information to school-level staff, and cumulative, end-of-year data to parents, state leaders and other stakeholders.

At the same time, the adoption of chronic absence as an indicator can present a hurdle for schools, because it requires daily data collection and many data collectors. This reality means that states and districts must establish daily attendance-taking systems that are easy to use, hard to ignore, securely maintained, and capable of producing timely and actionable reports for educators. In addition, data definitions and collection protocols must yield comparable statewide and summative reports that are clear and accessible to stakeholders.

How do you know your state’s student attendance data are high quality?

High quality student attendance data has several characteristics: It can be compared across districts and schools; it’s transparent, secure, and is supported by district policies and procedures. Ask the questions below about your state’s student attendance data (or ask your state’s education leadership to answer these questions!) Then, consider the following suggestions to improve the quality of these data:

Are the data comparable across districts and schools?

    • Is there a consistent definition of what constitutes a day of attendance across the state? This question is especially relevant in middle and high schools where students typically change classes throughout the day.
    • Is the definition of all attendance-related measures, particularly chronic absence, clear and consistent across districts and schools?
    • Are chronic absence rates calculated consistently and correctly across the state?
    • Is there guidance about when attendance should be taken during the day and how to modify records, for example, when a student is late?
    • Is there a neutral setting for recording attendance in student data systems? If not, are students considered present until they are marked absent or vice versa?
    • Can student data systems detect when schools don’t submit attendance? Is there staff assigned to follow-up on un-submitted attendance?

Steps to improve comparability

  • Don’t wait for students to be enrolled for most of the school year before compiling and assessing attendance data. Ensure that the greatest number of students is included in the data collection by creating thresholds (such as number of days enrolled) for inclusion that capture the majority of students.
  • Choose a neutral value as the default setting in student data systems so that students must be marked either present or absent.
  • Have a process in place to audit student attendance data and attendance-taking processes.

Are the data transparent?

    • Are attendance data readily accessible to stakeholders and educators and tailored depending upon their roles? Can they find the student attendance data they need, such as chronic absence rates, to make decisions or take action?
    • Does the state provide information about the data, such as, clear explanations about how student attendance data are collected, how indicators are calculated, and whether there are data limitations?
    • Has the state communicated why student attendance data are valuable to meeting its goals (beyond accountability purposes) to districts and the public?

Steps to improve transparency

  • Engage a diverse set of stakeholders to get input on how student attendance data are collected and whether the data are accessible and understandable.
  • Ensure that educators, parents and community partners have easy access to data dashboards that allows them to break chronic absence data down by student, grade, teacher, student sub-group, and geography so that they can intervene before students miss too many school days.
  • Have a process by which stakeholders can question the data if there are results that do not seem accurate?

Are the data secure?

    • Are individual-level student attendance data being kept safe according to FERPA standards?
    • Is student privacy protected in the process of collecting attendance data?
    • Do the state’s procedures ensure that only those who need to see individual-level attendance data have access?

Steps to improve data security

  • Empower a data governance body to ensure that student attendance data are securely collected and maintained. The Department of Education created a toolkit that simplifies the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
  • Proactively communicate about how the data are protected.
  • Provide school leaders with professional development about protecting individual student attendance data.

Updating district policies and procedures for attendance supervision

  • Accurate data also requires updating Local Education Agency policies and administrative regulations which support the involvement of specific staff members in maintaining accurate data.
  • Board policies and administrative regulations must be consistent with state laws for establishing a system to accurately track pupil attendance to ensure that pupils with attendance problems are identified early to provide applicable support services and interventions

State leaders should be prepared to look critically at student attendance data and answer questions about the processes and decisions behind the numbers. The quality of these data depends upon the daily buy-in of teachers and school-level staff. Over time, public scrutiny of the day can help improve the quality of the data and higher quality can increase trust in using the data to inform practice and policy.

Much of the power of chronic absence emerges when it is used as a diagnostic measure, rather than a year-end accountability measure. If these attendance data are to be of high quality and used, not just reported, schools and districts must be encouraged – not punished – for honest reporting and proactive use of the data.

We would like to express our appreciation to Elizabeth Dabney, Director of Research and Policy for the Data Quality Campaign and Jane Sundius, Senior Fellow for Attendance Work for significantly contributing to the content of this blog.

We’d like to hear from you about ESSA planning and implementation. Please share your comments with Sue Fothergill, Associate Director of Policy, at Sue@attendanceworks.org.

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