Two years ago, the federal government took an enormous step toward providing the first national data on chronic absenteeism. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) asked the school districts it surveys to report how many students are missing 15 or more days in a school year. The data will be released for the first time next spring, providing a font of information about the who, what and where of chronic absence. We can’t wait to dig into it.
But we want more. OCR is asking for input by Monday, Aug. 3, on its Civil Rights Data Collection program, and Attendance Works is submitting these comments. We encourage you to submit comments as well on this link. Feel free to lift any or all of the comments we’ve developed.
Chiefly we want OCR to change its definition of chronic absence from missing 15 days to missing 10 percent of the school year. There are several reasons.
- Greater inclusion of highly mobile, homeless and foster children: These groups, all of whom have among the highest rates of absenteeism, often move in and out of schools or even districts before accruing 15 absences in a year. Thus, OCR’s current measure could undercount the absenteeism problem among some of our most vulnerable populations. When Utah looked at data for all its districts, it found that homeless students were 2.5 times more likely and mobile students were 4.2 times more likely to be chronically absent than their peers. All states should have access to this sort of information.
- Better comparison across states: A percentage provides a better metric for comparison across states, which vary widely in the length of the school year. Fifteen absences mean something different when the school year is 170 days, vs. 190 days. A 10% metric provides a standard for comparing state to state, a key role of OCR’s data collection efforts. Also, using the 10% measure ensures that districts that require more school days would not be penalized, given that a longer school year increases the likelihood of a student reaching the 15-day threshold.
- Alignment with research and state policy: Researchers are increasingly defining chronic absence as missing 10% or more of the school year and are producing a body of research that shows the decidedly negative consequences of missing that much school: weaker social skills in kindergarten, difficulty reading in third grade, higher retention rates and increased dropout rates. Some states – including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Ohio and Oregon – have adopted that definition.. By using a 10% measure, OCR would align its data collection with that of leading researchers and several states..
- Ease of calculation: Providing a percentage of days is not that much harder than providing a number. Once a district has calculated how many days a student missing, data teams can convert the number into a percentage. Attendance Works offers free data tools for anyone having trouble making the conversion. In California, Eagle Software, which produces the AERIES student information system used by nearly half of the state’s districts, has created a easy-to-use download into these attendance tracking tools and is working to add chronic absence tracking into its real-time data dashboards.
In addition to changing the definition, we’re asking OCR to request chronic absence information by grade level, along with existing information on race, ethnicity and demographic status such as students with disabilities and students with English as a second language. Without grade level breakouts, OCR and school districts could miss the fact chronic absenteeism often starts as early as kindergarten and first grade, slowing development of key academic and social skills needed to succeed in school. key populations affected by chronic absence.. There is a precedent for collecting grade level data as CRDC currently tracks retention by grade level.
Like OCR, we see data collection as essential to ensuring that all children, especially those from protected classes, have an equal opportunity to learn. Attendance data, used properly, can be an early warning sign that a student, a school or an entire district is headed off track. But too many places miss that warning signal because they focus only on how many students show up every day or on truancy or unexcused absences. In both cases, they fail to realize the toll that excused absences can take on student achievement. All states need sufficient data to assess what schools, communities and student groups have the biggest problems. OCR can compel that data collection with a requirement for requiring the number of students who miss 10% of the school year.