October 6th, 2017

A Sea Change in Defining and Responding to Poor Attendance

This is the third in our blog series highlighting attendance-related issues that are emerging as states work through the complexities of implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). States were required to submit plans to implement the ESSA by September 18, 2017. Remarkably, more than 70 percent chose some form of chronic absence as an indicator. In this post we focus on the opportunities and challenges that will likely arise as a result.

In 36 states and the District of Columbia, chronic absenteeism will be a part of school accountability, according to a new report from FutureEd, a nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University. Most states will use it as the “fifth” ESSA indicator, often in combination with factors such as school climate or college and career readiness. Schools will be responsible for meeting student attendance and other achievement goals beginning in 2018.

At least 27 will use the definition of chronic absence that researchers prefer: missing 10 percent of school days. Five will use the inverse, measuring how many students are present 90 percent of school days, while others chose a higher bar or a set number of days.

The use of chronic absence portends a sea change in the way in which schools and districts will define and respond to poor attendance. Until now, schools relied on average daily attendance, which hid individual students’ chronic absence, and truancy, which often set in motion legal, punitive, and largely ineffective consequences for students and families. Now, states using chronic absence will be able to identify students who are at risk, and intervene to get them on track.

What States Can Do to Implement the Metric

Adopting the metric is a great first step. In order to fulfill the promise of improving attendance and achievement, states also need to ensure that districts and schools have effective tools to help implement attendance improvement practices. States should:

  • Provide guidance to ensure consistency in measuring absences. Either through legislation or regulation, state leaders should ensure that all districts use the same parameters to track chronic absence. While the federal government and most states define chronic absence by measuring all days lost to instruction – whether those days are excused, unexcused or due to suspensions –some states have opted to provide exclusions.

    Some states, including California and West Virginia, include suspensions in their accountability rubrics. Some mention disciplinary absences explicitly in their plans; others are silent. New York excludes suspensions, arguing that suspended students receive alternative instruction. West Virginia does not count absences due to suspensions of students accused of violent crimes or posing a danger to others. Some states provide other exemptions—West Virginia excludes those due to “failure of the bus to run or hazardous conditions.” Yet days missed due to suspensions or other disciplinary actions should be included, as they can be a significant contributor to poor attendance. Attendance Works recommends against exemptions, simply because the strength of a metric is due to the fact that it includes all absences.

    State guidance should also ensure consistency in counting partial days, (e.g. when a student only attends the first two classes of a day.) A recent study suggests that chronic absence among secondary school students would rise substantially if partial days were counted. States should encourage school districts to choose a neutral value as the default setting for attendance data systems. If it’s set to “present” and attendance reports are not submitted by school staff, rates will be overstated.

  • Provide data and guidance that schools and districts can use in real time to address chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism indicators function best when they are used as leading, diagnostic indicators, tipping off educators to problems before they are reflected in lower achievement and engagement. It is critical that states encourage proactive and regular use of chronic absence data. To that end, states should help districts establish data systems that allow them to collect, collate and return data to schools so that they can use it to intervene with students headed off track. Research shows that absences in the first month of school can predict chronic absenteeism for the entire year. Likewise, prior year absences can signal which students are more likely to be chronically absent in the subsequent year. By providing the data to support schools’ and districts’ needs, state leaders can help prevent chronic absence.
  • Supporting professional development for teachers. Research shows that parents consider teachers the most trusted source of information and yet they rarely hear about student attendance from them. States can tap into free resources to equip teachers with the tools they need to speak to families on this issue. For example, Attendance Works’ Teaching Attendance 2.0 toolkit offers resources to help educators discuss attendance at back-to-school-night and in parent-teacher conferences. States could also pay for professional development or give teachers continuing education credits for chronic absenteeism seminars, webinars or online courses. The state of Virginia worked with Attendance Works to create a set of online modules.
  • Help districts target resources to address chronic absence. Many states use tiered systems of response to target resources and differentiate intervention levels. Professional development can help to adapt this approach to chronic absenteeism. In the first tier, creating a coordinated system of proactive strategies to prevent absenteeism includes establishing a positive school climate, monitoring attendance data, putting in place effective messaging, and addressing common barriers to attendance. In the second tier, mentoring programs, close monitoring of attendance data, and addressing common causes to absenteeism have proven successful in engaging and supporting students at-risk of missing too much school. Helping students in the third tier requires intensive interventions by schools and, very often, in partnership with health, social services or housing agencies. Ohio’s ESSA plan breaks the tiers down into days missed: all students need universal supports to ensure good attendance; for those missing less than 10 percent of the school year, these universal strategies are likely sufficient. Students missing between 10 and 19 percent of days need more intensive support, and those at 20 percent or more require expanded support.
  • Remove barriers to data sharing and cross-agency collaboration. The most challenging cases of chronic absenteeism often involve students who are already connected to other public agencies, including homeless and foster care children, as well as those with physical or mental chronic illnesses. Public reporting of rates of chronic absence— including how many students are severely chronically absent—can help identify where public resources might be most needed. Releasing the data also helps identify where to target efforts to obtain consent from families, so that data on individual students can be appropriately shared in keeping with regulations for respecting confidentiality.
  • Verify attendance data from schools and districts. States should be prepared to do spot checks of attendance data and otherwise audit attendance data for accuracy. Verification procedures will help assure educators that their peers are following the same rules, will communicate the state and district’s commitment to attendance, and will uncover needs for additional training on attendance-taking procedures.

Each of these approaches have one factor in common: they don’t rely on blaming the students, parents or educators. Experience shows us that broad, community-wide approaches that address the root causes of absences are what make a meaningful long-lasting difference. Now that so many states are on board, there’s more opportunity than ever to get this done.

Read the previous blogs in our series, High Quality Attendance Data is More Important Than Ever, and Making the Most of Attendance Indicators.

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