This blog is the first of a 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). We hope to stimulate conversation among those on the front lines of ESSA planning and implementation. We’d like to hear from you. Please share your comments with Sue Fothergill, Associate Director of Policy, at Sue@attendanceworks.org.

The recently submitted state plans for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) show that chronic absence is gaining traction as an indicator of school quality and student success. As this chart shows, the majority—14 out of the 17 officially submitted ESSA plans—includes some variant of chronic absence as an accountability indicator and many other states with plans in preparation seem likely to follow suit.

Attendance Works is excited by the opportunity that the increased focus on chronic absence provides because it has the potential to increase student achievement substantially. We now know that excessive student absences are a proven, widespread, and consequential problem in American schools. National data from the Office for Civil Rights shows that at least 6.8 million public school students missed 15 or more days of school in 2013-14, and it affects at least 89 percent of the nation’s school districts. Several high quality research studies show that the impact of chronic absence leads to lower achievement, disengagement and often dropout. Yet chronic absence can be reversed and, when attendance improves, student achievement is likely to improve.

While many states have added, or are considering including, attendance measures to their accountability systems, the nature of the indicator and definitions of chronic absence differ, as do their attendance goals and intervention points. We believe that some of these differences are critical because the choices states make may determine how powerful attendance and chronic absence are as measures of school quality and student success. One of the most promising developments is that ten of the states with formally submitted ESSA plans have chosen to define chronic absence as missing 10 percent of school days. We recommend that states adopt this particular definition for two critical reasons: first, it has a proven ability to identify students who are at very high risk of academic failure due to absences; and, second, using it will allow for comparisons across states and districts nationwide, even if the lengths of their school years differ.

Using a positive indicator  

A second approach that is surfacing in a few states is the use of a positive metric, one that attempts to measure the percentage of students who have good attendance, rather than the percentage chronically absent. This approach is laudable. Our resources are chock full of positive messaging, student and family engagement strategies and other approaches to improving student attendance in this way.

However, choosing an effective, appropriate positive indicator is not so simple.

Take for example the most obvious positive metric: the percentage of children who are not chronically absent, or those that attend more than 90 percent of days. This type of metric won’t distinguish between students who just met the measure—missing  17 days—and those who had much better attendance such as missing 5 days out of an entire school year. It’s important to understand that, while chronic absence can reliably identify students at high risk of failure due to absences, its inverse should not be considered a reliable indicator of students at low risk of academic failure due to absences. This is because research suggests that low risk students attend, on average, 95 percent or more of school days.

So why shouldn’t states adopt a standard of 95 percent as satisfactory attendance?

What we have heard from some states is that too many of their schools, and particularly their high schools, would not meet this standard. At the same time, choosing a 90 percent or higher attendance indicator and giving it a positive label (such as “persistent,” or “consistent,” attendance) can send the wrong message: namely, that students need only attend more than 90 percent of school days to be successful. This may have the unintended consequence of setting the bar for attendance too low.

For this reason, and others we have outlined in our policy brief, Chronic Absence: Our Top Pick,  Attendance Works believes that the chronic absence indicator, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days, is the best bet for state accountability systems. Including chronic absence in accountability systems and improvement plans ensures that schools and districts respond to chronic absence as the emergency that it is.

However, if a state is committed to a positive attendance measure, our next recommendation is to use two indicators: satisfactory attendance, defined as attending 95 percent or more of school days, and chronic absence, again, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. Taken together, these indicators would communicate the level of attendance that gives students the best chance of success and would ensure that students at high risk of academic failure due to their attendance receive the attention they need. What about states that cannot include two measures in their accountability systems and are committed to using the more-than-90 percent attendance measure?

We suspect they will have to do additional education and training to send the message that satisfactory attendance is 95 percent or better. They will need to look at how they use a range of strategies, such as school report cards, workshops with families, professional development with school staff, etc., to communicate that students and families will need to set higher attendance goals, significantly above 90 percent, to ensure absences are not contributing to poor academic outcomes.

Now it’s your turn. For those readers in the thick of dealing with these issues and decisions, tell us what your state is doing. How is it handling attendance indicators? How can we make the most of the ESSA opportunity and maximize the impact of attendance indicators? Send us an email to Sue Fothergill, at Sue@attendanceworks.org

Jane Sundius, Senior Fellow, and Hedy Chang, Executive Director, Attendance Works