As schools take on the crucial task of providing opportunities to learn during Covid-19, monitoring attendance and chronic absence is essential. Students showing up and participating in class (in person, virtual or a blend) offers the best data currently available about whether instruction is reaching and engaging students.
Monitoring chronic absence allows schools and community partners to engage in prevention and early intervention before problems are more expensive to resolve. Examining attendance patterns offers valuable, real-time feedback about what is and isn’t working well so districts and schools can determine what practices they should expand or drop. And if high levels of absenteeism affect large groups of students, it suggests that systemic solutions should be put in place to address educational inequities.
Although the definition of attendance has changed this year for many schools, monitoring attendance data during the first few weeks of school supports attendance efforts throughout the year. The start of the school is a critical time for helping students and families access learning and establish habits and routines that lay a foundation for academic success. The reverse also holds true. Research shows that children who are chronically absent during the first month of school are more likely to miss too much school throughout the year.
Schools and community partners can use data to see which students and families need support to resolve attendance barriers before students fall too far behind. Using data to activate support is especially needed during the transition grades – kindergarten, 6th and 9th – when it is easy for students to feel disengaged or get lost as they transition to new settings.
A close examination of attendance data can also show if schools need to take additional steps to make sure the collection is accurate and consistent. Early warning metrics depend upon reliable, high quality data. In this uncertain year, assessing for data quality is essential given how rapidly and unexpectedly schools have changed how they operate and count when students are present. We’ve seen that data for this fall is extremely varied, with districts making decisions to determine what is a day of attendance. Typically, what counts for showing up in distance learning is a relatively low-bar measure once students have secured the needed devices and internet.
Nonetheless, attendance data is still more available than other academic metrics. Chronic absence, missing 10% or more of school, is still a sign that a student is missing out on learning. Attendance Works advocates for continuing to monitor chronic absence while calling for new research to be conducted to identify what levels and types of absences in blended learning predict worse academic performance.
The attendance numbers this year are worrying. An on-line survey conducted by EdWeek Research Center suggests that daily absence rates have nearly doubled from an average of 6% before the pandemic to 10% this fall. Data publicly available from districts also reveals that an overall attendance rate can mask significant disparities, for example for Black and Native American students. See an example of this from the Oakland Unified School District’s public dashboard.
To fully understand attendance, districts, schools and communities need to examine multiple metrics, Attendance Works recommends that educators examine the following questions:
- What does data reveal for the first month of school, for in-person attendance (if school buildings are open), participation in distance learning, connectivity, up-to-date contact information and chronic absence? What does data reveal overall, and when disaggregated by ethnicity, student population, grade-level and school?
- How is attendance being defined? What allows a student to be counted as present, especially in remote learning, whether it is synchronous or asynchronous? Does the attendance measure fail to reflect a meaningful opportunity to learn? If data is confusing, it could reflect problems with data collection.
- How often is attendance taken? Is it daily? If it isn’t daily, could the frequency be increased?
- How many students might need support given the numbers experiencing chronic absence?
- Which schools, grades, or teachers appear to have lower chronic absence rates, even when students or families are living in poverty? Are they engaged in practices that can and should be expanded?
Although the challenges of Covid-19 are unprecedented, the experiences of multiple communities show that it is possible to engage and support students and families and provide them with high quality learning experiences. MS 50 El Puente Community School in New York City is especially inspiring. Serving predominantly Black and brown students living in low-income neighborhoods, El Puente maintained high levels of student participation in distance learning last spring as well as during the reopening of school in the fall. (Learn more about MS 50 El Puente Community School in our September 30 webinar.)
How did they do it? The rich array of strategies offered at MS 50 El Puente Community Schools included offering a culturally responsive and empowering approach to education, personally delivering technology to each of their students, conducting virtual home visits, holding online forums to listen to families concerns and keep families informed, simplify class log in procedures and assigning community school personnel to help teachers with technology support and online community building activities.
Improving attendance, even with challenges brought on by Covid-19, is possible. It requires a strategic use of resources, and constant attention to data to determine what is and isn’t working, so that absences don’t add up.