California attorney general calls for state actions to improve student attendance

October 19, 2016
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California Attorney General Kamala Harris on Wednesday called for the California Department of Education to take over a job that her office has done for the past four years: release an annual data analysis on chronic student absenteeism.

The request came as part of a 10-point call for action included in her office’s latest attendance report, In School + On Track 2016Harris said that, beginning as early as preschool, chronic absenteeism has emerged as an indicator of whether students will be able to read at grade level in 3rd grade. That, in turn, is a predictor of graduating from high school, obtaining employment, paying taxes and staying out of prison.

The report found that in 2015-16 about 7 percent of K-5 students were chronically absent, which is defined as missing more than 10 percent of school days. Schools don’t need to wait until the end of a 180-day school year to identify students who have missed 18 days of school, the report said. A student who missed 4 out of 40 days of school, for instance, would be considered chronically absent. 

More than 1 in 10 kindergarten students in the sample were chronically absent in 2015-16. School attendance is not required under state law until a student is six years old. Chronic absence rates in elementary grades have remained “relatively stable” over the past few years, the report found.

Speaking at John Muir Elementary School in San Francisco, Harris, who is running for the U.S. Senate in November, touched on some of the report’s 10 action items, which seemed designed to ensure that her signature work on absenteeism and dropout rates would continue no matter what office she holds next year.

She also revived her plea for a statewide attendance database that would help districts identify students – particularly those who move from one district to another – who are in need of a plan to deal with chronic absenteeism connected to asthma, transportation problems or out-of-school suspensions.

“The issue of chronic absenteeism is a big one, not only because it is a matter of unachieved potential, in terms of who students can be,” Harris said. “It’s a matter of whether taxpayers are getting a return on our investment, it is a matter of public safety, and it is a matter of workforce development. But it is also a matter of whether we are actually, as a system, being efficient and effective.”

Harris suggested that the foundation of effective change in student absenteeism is data that schools can use to understand and address the question of why students are missing a lot of school.

More data will start flowing this current school year, as the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires school districts to report chronic absence rates to the California Department of Education. Harris called for analysis once that data is in the system. Her report stated, “Year after year, many of the district leaders who responded to our surveys indicate that the Attorney General’s report prompted them to make changes to their attendance policies and practices to ensure students do not fall through the cracks. We need public reporting on truancy and chronic absence rates in California.”

Harris’ office has published an attendance report every year since 2012-13.

The 10 actions called for in the attorney general’s report:

  1. Institutionalize an annual report by the California Department of Education, in consultation with the California Department of Justice, that presents and analyzes trends in truancy and chronic absence rates;
  2. Improve data tracking and monitoring at the local  and state level;
  3. Provide support to improve data collection and monitoring;
  4. Focus on attendance in early grades;
  5. Improve the LCAP template to standardize data reporting and goal setting for chronic absence by subgroup;
  6. Reduce student absences due to suspensions by expanding programs that focus on behavioral support rather than punitive approaches to student discipline;
  7. Change California law to require that a child’s parent or guardian is notified when the child is excessively absent for any reason;
  8. Communication with parents and guardians must be reframed to include more positive language and clear information on how much school the child is missing;
  9. Advocate for a common national definition for chronic absence;
  10. Use chronic absence data to target those who need more intensive interventions while providing attendance information to all.

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