Long rated by test scores, schools may soon be judged on student absenteeism too

The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
Posted April 19, 2017


Posters encourage regular attendance at Simon Elementary School in the District, a city that has enormous truancy rates, even among young children. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

How should the success or failure of a public school be judged?

For the past generation, the federal government’s primary answer has been standardized test scores. But now states have more latitude to decide for themselves, and many are choosing to judge schools in part based on how many kids frequently miss class.

Of the dozen states that have laid out their plans for holding schools accountable under the new federal law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, 10 are aiming to use chronic absenteeism as a factor in identifying their best and worst schools. So is the District of Columbia.

More than 6 million children missed more than 15 days — or three weeks — of school during the 2013-14 school year, according to federal data published last year. It was the first time such nationwide data had been gathered and published.

Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz said he’s hopeful that incorporating absenteeism in school rating systems will encourage districts and school leaders to pay more attention to what has often been an overlooked problem.

“If kids aren’t there every day, it’s going to be hard for us to succeed,” said Balfanz, whose work has helped show that there is a tight link between students who miss class frequently — more than 10 percent of the school year, or 18 days in a 180-day school year — and those who struggle academically and eventually drop out.

The new law requires states to design rating systems that rely heavily on student achievement, including proficiency rates on standardized math and reading tests, year-to-year growth on those tests and graduation rates. But the law also requires rating systems to incorporate at least one measure of school climate or quality — and that’s where chronic absenteeism comes in.

Many states are choosing to use absenteeism both because it is linked to student achievement and because it doesn’t require a lot of new resources, since schools and districts already collect attendance data, said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Minnich said he anticipates that states may embrace additional indicators of a school’s success — such as the percentage of a high school’s students who not only enroll but also persist in college — as they devise systems to measure them.

“I think the biggest thing is, we’re now signaling to schools that it’s not all about test scores,” Minnich said.

Under the previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind, schools in many states were judged in part on “average daily attendance.” Most schools scored well on that measure, masking the number of students who were frequently missing class.

Under the new law, test scores, graduation rates and other such academic factors are still required to comprise much more weight than non-academic factors in a state’s school rating system.

And so absenteeism would account for a relatively small percentage of a school’s overall performance rating under the emerging accountability plans. Of the 13 plans submitted so far, only those from Louisiana and Vermont do not use chronic absenteeism.

The rest of the state plans, including those from Maryland and Virginia, are due by September. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will decide whether to approve them.

In the District, test scores and graduation rates would count for 70 percent of a school’s rating. Twenty-five percent would be measures of school environment, including chronic absenteeism — which accounts for just 5.8 percent of an elementary school’s score and 7.5 percent of a middle and high school’s score — and re-enrollment rate, or the percentage of enrolled students who choose to return to the school each year.

In New Jersey, chronic absenteeism accounts for 10 percent of a school’s rating, compared to 70 percent for academic achievement and 20 percent for progress toward English proficiency for students learning the language.

Absenteeism is far from the only non-academic indicator that states are using in their plans. Also popular is college and career readiness, which some are measuring by the proportion of students taking Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment classes.

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Connecticut has a whopping 12 different factors in its school rating plan, including academic achievement and growth on tests (52 percent) and graduation rates (15 percent), chronic absenteeism (7.4 percent) and physical fitness and access to arts classes (3.4 percent each).

Officials at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union, said they’re glad to see absenteeism in rating systems, as long as those systems are used to help identify schools for extra support and not to punish them. Data showing that a struggling school has many frequently absent students, for example, could help make the case for more funding for social workers to tackle the problem.

Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins researcher, said he too believes that measuring chronic absenteeism helps schools pinpoint and address issues that are keeping students out of class and therefore unable to learn. For that reason, he’s glad that absenteeism is in school rating systems, so it gets more attention. But he’s also glad that it doesn’t count for too much.

Giving the metric too much emphasis can backfire, he said. “Once you have a lot of weight, then people try to find ways to make things look good.”