- Tony Wold, Ed.D.
The Sandwich Kids, Attendance Matters for All Students
What districts don’t talk about enough is the large group of students who are on the fringe. These students are the ones that are not yet chronically absent but consistently miss between 12 and 18 days each year. During the most recent school year, the average attendance rate for most districts dropped to 90%, meaning that the average student had missed 15 – 19 days. The results clearly showed a commensurate decline in student achievement.
Most schools target students on both extremes (chronically absent and perfect attendance), ignoring the vast group of students who are sandwiched in the middle—what we call manageable. Districts that have the attendance monitoring work done in-house or at sites also find that their resources are stretched to the breaking point and can barely maintain proper notification for chronic and are always working in a reactive manner.
In attendance monitoring, we define students in 5 categories:
Excellent – missing 1%
Satisfactory – missing less than 5% (95%)
Manageable – missing less than 10% (90%)
Chronic – missing between 10 – 15% (85%)
Severe – missing more than 15%
The current system expects a student that has fallen behind academically to decide that they will immediately put in more time and do more work to catch up. We do not stop the ongoing daily instruction; we just add additional remediation to their workload. In some cases, the LEA chooses to remove the student from some part of core instruction to participate in the remediation knowing that this student will not receive that subject creating a new deficit. As such, we end up seeing students who previously were A and B students all of the sudden receiving C’s with a possible D here or there (or similar on a rubric score where they fall from 3-4 down to a 2 on the 4-point scale).
With the strict graduation requirements, a student who fails just 3 classes in 9th grade cannot graduate on time. Imagine the feeling of hopelessness once a student understands that they cannot catch up without doing something extra. These students and parents may not have fully understood the concept and importance of attendance when in a subject-driven environment. While that is the extreme side, the same student who all of a sudden is a C student when they never were before can have the same social/emotional impact.
When implementing a proactive, preventative attendance system, the target audience is all students, and the messages are entirely positive and focused on the goals and aspirations of the students. In 2018 – 2019, 69% of all students were either excellent or satisfactory; that percentage dropped by 21% to 48% in 2021 – 2022. The percentage of chronic and severe grew from approximately 15% in 2018 – 2019 to over 30% in 2021 – 2022 for LEAs that had an attendance management system. For LEAs that did not have a systematic approach to attendance, the percentage of chronic and severe was well over 40% in 2021 – 2022. The average student missed more than 15 days of school (3 weeks) in 2021 – 2022 and we have seen the academic results.
A systems approach to student achievement starts with attendance. With the percentage of students whose attendance is impacting their academic achievement well over 50% in all LEAs across the country, we must take a new approach. The focus on attendance must be the first, and primary focus of every LEA. With all the focus on lost learning, student mental health, and rampant staffing shortages it is clear that we need to stop and analyze what is missing in the foundation and ensure that we support that foundation of attendance habits for every student and parent we serve on a consistent and ongoing basis. Every public company maintains a budget for marketing and ensures that the company focus is clear to the consumers. It is time for public education to do the same.