Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource Today
Sky Lowe, a student in Oakland, said a teacher pulled him back from chronic absenteeism.

Now that the California Department of Education has announced it will for the first time collect chronic absenteeism data – an early indicator of students at risk of dropping out – advocates are pressing the State Board of Education to include that information in the accountability system it is creating under the new federal education law.

The state board, which at its March 9-10 meeting will discuss the “multiple measures” of accountability it is considering under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, has shown little enthusiasm for chronic absenteeism rates as a performance indicator in the past, arguing that a less precise indicator of attendance would have to do because that was the only data the state collected, said Hedy Chang, executive director of the Oakland-based national nonprofit Attendance Works.

“Now we also have chronic absenteeism,” Chang said. “This is a huge, important, major development.” She added, “This is a game changer.”

The state will begin collecting the data from districts in late spring 2017, based on attendance for the 2016-17 school year.

For years, Chang and other researchers have been working to shift the education discussion from paying attention to “average daily attendance,” which also is used in California to determine school funding, to students who are chronically absent, defined as missing more than 10 percent of school days since the start of the school year. That’s because attendance rates create the impression that absences are evenly distributed.

But in fact, schools that proudly display Average Daily Attendance rates of 90 or 95 percent, Chang says, often don’t track students who are consistently missing school for absences that are excused, unexcused or suspensions – and missing two to four days every month, for instance, adds up to a significant loss of time that could be spent learning to read or do math. A school with a 95 percent average daily attendance rate and an enrollment of 200 students, Chang noted, could have 60 students missing a month of school during the course of the year. Without the data, the school loses a chance to stop a small problem before it becomes a bigger one, she said. Research has linked chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and 1st grade to difficulty reading in 3rd grade, and students who are not reading at grade level in 3rd grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school.

“This is a game changer,” Hedy Chang of Attendance Works said of the statewide collection of chronic absenteeism data.

Now there appears to be growing recognition of the significance of chronic absenteeism data, said Brad Strong, senior director of education policy at the nonprofit Children Now. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in December and takes effect in 2017-18, requires states to collect and report data on chronic absenteeism – this was the key reason California will move forward with its data collection. The federal Office for Civil Rights just completed its first national collection of chronic absenteeism data. And in California, districts are required to set goals to reduce chronic absenteeism in their Local Control and Accountability Plans, the budget and academic improvement plans that districts must write. But the key starting point, said Strong, is having the statewide data collection.

“It’s meaningful data,” Strong said.

Attorney General Kamala Harris, who for years has called for action to curb chronic absenteeism and prevent future dropouts and offenders in the juvenile justice system, estimated in a 2015 report that about 230,000 California elementary school students – about 1 in 12 – missed more than 10 percent of school in 2014-15.

She called the statewide chronic absenteeism data collection a “monumental step.” Now Harris has introduced an online chronic absenteeism toolkit for schools that is designed to answer a single question: “How should we talk to parents of elementary school students about their children’s absences?” On Friday, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education announced two new initiatives to reduce chronic absenteeism.

The statewide data collection is expected to prompt school districts to ask their student information system vendors to upgrade software to start collecting and pinpointing which students are at risk of chronic absenteeism, Chang said. Attendance Works offers such data collection tools at no charge to districts and schools, but it is not yet compatible with every student information system.

Such federal and statewide prompting is necessary, Harris said. In a letter in January to Acting Education Secretary John King, Harris noted that while Local Control Accountability Plans call for districts to pay attention to chronic absenteeism, “only about half of the districts reported they have the tools necessary to routinely monitor the absence patterns of individual students.”

But some schools, such as Oakland’s Garfield Elementary School, have both the data collection and a dedicated family outreach team in place. Naza’Reth Johnson is a family advocate at Garfield Elementary and at 7:45 a.m., he starts calling parents. “She hates me,” he said on a recent morning, kind of joking but not exactly, about a parent he calls every day. “It’s a love-hate thing. She knows I care.”

The parent’s two young children have missed more than one out of every 10 days at Garfield Elementary. They’re kept home because of the rain, to go shopping or to help their mother, who has a health condition. Their reading skills are slipping. Johnson, who works to reduce chronic absenteeism, started his patter – always positive. “Hey, I’m looking forward to seeing the girls in school today,” he said.

Each week Johnson and his colleague Rocio Cisneros text, meet with, write to and troubleshoot with families whose children’s names appear on a watch list of about 30 students who are chronically absent or close to it. Garfield Elementary has a total enrollment of about 600 students. On a recent rainy day, Johnson problem-solved with the mother of the two girls. “She said it was storming and she didn’t want the girls to walk in the rain and that it was best for them to stay home,” he recalled. He told her it was wet out, but not storming, and that he would walk over and pick up the girls. The parent agreed. “I met the girls at the corner,” he said. “We walked to school together.”

Sky Lowe, a junior at Oakland High School, said he became chronically absent this past fall after a series of family problems caused him to move out of the house. Eventually, he moved in with a family friend, he said, but money was tight and his spirits were low. Unable to afford bus fare, he missed “about two days a week” of school for three or four months, he said. The school was unable to reach his mother. It wasn’t until a teacher asked Lowe about his absences that things changed, he said.

His teacher got in touch with Lowe’s supervisor at a paid internship. The supervisor said Lowe’s pay would be docked $25 if he missed three or more class periods a week. The teacher also referred Lowe to the school’s student wellness center, where staff referred him to a counselor he could talk with about what he’s been going through. Lowe is back at school.

But he says he has friends who are out of school and unnoticed.

“I happen to be the lucky one who was forced to go back to school,” he said.

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  1. Guy Bonanno 7 years ago7 years ago

    Once again you are looking at a statistic to punish schools rather than giving schools support to fix the problem. Schools are a small part of the chronic absenteeism issue. Parents need to be addressed and schools need to be supported to be able to meet the needs of all students, not be restricted by a once size fits all mentality that is pushed by the state.

  2. Jonathan Raymond 7 years ago7 years ago

    The data on chronic absenteeism and its impact on teaching and learning is compelling. Having districts set goals in their local plans is a positive first step. California can take this leadership to the next level by holding districts accountable toward making improvements in this critical area.

  3. Jim Mordecai 7 years ago7 years ago

    Absenteeism reflects class differences. System punishes schools with high percentage of lower classes for absenteeism by funding those present in a school and de-funding schools with lower classes. Why not fund schools with higher absenteeism at a greater level so a school will not have to rob other programs to pay for its absentee challenge?