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The Importance of Attendance Management

[Fiscal Report Editor’s Note: As recently highlighted by statewide data and School Services of California Inc.’s February 2022 Fiscal Report article “CDE Principal Apportionment Data Confirms Significant ADA Decline,” local educational agencies (LEAs) across California continue to be challenged by student attendance. California is one of the few states in the nation that funds schools based on students’ presence in the classroom instead of their enrollment in a school. As California debates if and how to change the existing LEA funding structure, it is more important than ever to have solid strategies to address student absences.

The following is a guest article by Jeff Williams, CEO of School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A). SI&A, is a leader in helping return students to their classrooms to achieve their best academic outcomes and here shares some of the proven strategies for improving student attendance.]


The historic statewide average daily attendance (ADA) drops of 8.5% reported in the certified First Principal (P-1) Apportionment data, along with the sun-setting of the ADA hold harmless provision, and mounting pension contributions have created a school finance reform movement. Many school districts face a triple whammy of enrollment drops of 4%, coupled with ADA declines of 3%-5%, and reduced unduplicated pupil counts due to a reduction of returned income forms as a result of universal meals. In response, Governor Gavin Newsom proposes a three-year averaging of ADA and there is also proposed legislation in Senate Bill (SB) 830 (Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge) that recommends moving LEAs from attendance-based funding to enrollment-based funding.

Traditionally, advocates and civil rights organizations have expressed concerns that our most vulnerable students, who already had the highest rates of absenteeism pre-pandemic, will become further disenfranchised without accountability if attendance no longer has direct and significant ties to funding. We agree that this is an equity issue, and the reality is that the current funding model penalizes districts with high unduplicated pupil percentages. Those who have higher rates of absenteeism end up receiving less state aid for those very students. This also reduces the supplemental and concentration dollars available to intervene. What we have been doing has not changed this metric and we need to think differently.

At SI&A, we believe that a question needs to be asked, “Are we missing a fundamental in helping kids achieve?” Rather than focusing on funding, could the problem solve itself if districts focus on attendance management and help create new attendance behaviors for our most at-risk students who currently have excessive excused absences? The pandemic has altered what is normal, and as we move past the latest Omicron outbreaks, it is time for us to develop strategies to create a new normal. We know that gaps and divides have widened over the past two years, and we have seen that the number one success indicator, showing up to school (daily attendance), is in upheaval. The research is clear on several aspects:

  • Attendance is the #1 predictor of graduation and dropout rates.

  • How many kids show up every day impacts every aspect of LEA operations - funding, staffing, transportation, and nutrition services.

  • A University of Chicago study found that 67% of course failure was linked to attendance:

  • Only 5% and 7% of course failure was attributed to test scores and economics/demographics, respectively

This achievement divide has only been magnified by the pandemic. When districts focus on the 67% of students with excessive absences, all metrics improve: test scores, funding, and graduation rates increase. Despite these facts, most districts view attendance as a lagging indicator instead of a leading indicator.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Our advice: focus on the fundamentals. Districts have an opportunity to expand their competencies with an Attendance Management Systems (AMS) much in the way that districts have expanded their instructional delivery options by adopting Learning Management Systems (LMS). All districts have a Student Information System (SIS), a Management Information System (MIS) for human resources/business, and utilize a Special Education Information System (SEIS). Adding an AMS allows districts to focus on actionable data versus data input. Since the AMS integrates SIS data, districts would not need to change procedures. If we understand systems design and its purpose, then we understand that a systems approach is not only necessary but fundamental to closing gaps. It’s going to take a long-term plan to get students back on track.

The crisis of chronic absenteeism, approaching 30%+ levels statewide at the time of this writing, is a districtwide problem. No grade level or subgroup is unaffected. Enterprise problems require enterprise solutions. Enterprise solutions are designed to improve efficiency and build capacity while providing employees with a satisfying user experience. Now is not the time for pilots or unproven one-offs. Attendance Management enterprise solution, or an AMS, provides data and comparative analysis in order to inform appropriate decision and inform action.

Effectively changing processes can lead the way to behavioral/culture change. Staff training is important but will not solve all problems. The majority of districts implement personnel-driven processes relying on software: auto-dialers, chat bots, and individual user technical levels, resulting in wasted resources and unreliable results.

In a study of 57,000 pre-pandemic K-3 students who were in districts that utilized an AMS for four years, the rate of chronic absenteeism dropped from 35% to just 3% with the inclusion of consistent messaging and attention to attendance.

Equity requires bias-free processes, measurement and oversight, and administrative and performance reporting. By design, an AMS ensures equity in the process while improving data quality through scrubbing and integrity checks. Attendance Management Systems operate with rigor and fidelity; they never get sick or take the day off. This isn’t to say that implementing a robust AMS is a silver bullet, as our challenges won’t change overnight. But when we focus on the fundamentals—implementing an attendance management enterprise solution to connect and communicate with families—outcomes improve.

Students in 2nd grade this year have not had one full year of “normal” instruction and have not developed the proper attendance habits. The same can be said for a junior in high school. We need to begin building the approach for the importance of attendance in our messaging this spring and then build upon that in the future. Whether the Governor’s proposal of a three-year averaging of ADA, or the enrollment-based approach of SB 830 is adopted, in both cases there will be a need for enhanced focus on attendance. We believe that all districts should take the time to review their attendance monitoring and intervention procedures and look at what an Attendance Management System (AMS) can do for them.

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