California to add chronic absenteeism, career/college indicators to education ‘dashboard’

September 6, 2018

After lengthy discussion, a conflicted State Board of Education voted Thursday to expand the college/career readiness indicator and to add it and chronic absenteeism to the next version, later this year, of the California School Dashboard. The dashboard, introduced last year, rates schools and school districts on a number of areas of student performance, including test scores, graduation rates and suspension rates.

The new chronic absenteeism dashboard indicator — measuring students who miss 10 percent or more of school each year — will cover only students through grade 8. That decision, following a recommendation of the California Department of Education, caught school and student advocacy groups by surprise. They had assumed it would cover all grades and some called on the state board to reinstate high school grades.

“Chronic absence is a particularly important indicator at the high school level of whether students are on or off track for high school graduation,” Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of San Francisco-based Attendance Works, wrote in a letter to the state board. Attendance Works is a national nonprofit that urges schools to address patterns of school absences quickly and early.

The letter noted that of the 35 states that have adopted chronic absenteeism as a school accountability metric, all but three states include it as a K-12 indicator.

The state started collecting and reporting chronic absenteeism data from schools and districts for all grades in 2016-17. But it takes a minimum of two years of data to become a dashboard indicator, rating schools and districts using one of five colors. Data from 2017-18 will provide a second year.

In 2016-17, 10.8 percent of students statewide missed more than 10 percent — at least 18 days — of school. But there were wide disparities of chronic absenteeism, ranging from 3.6 percent of Asian students to 18.8 percent of African-American students. More high school students than elementary students were chronically absent — all the more reason, Chang and others argued, to rate and highlight upper grades and flag low-performing school districts and student groups for attention.

But Cindy Kazanis, the director of the Analysis, Measurement and Accountability division of the Department of Education, said that graduation rates and students’ performance on the college/career readiness indicator serve as alternatives to a chronic absenteeism indicator. Because chronic absenteeism data are collected only at the end of the school year, the indicator cannot serve as an early-alarm system. Districts have regional school attendance boards to respond to truant students and they already use attendance data to respond to chronic absenteeism, she said.

The multi-colored dashboard is a key element of the state’s system for holding school districts accountable under the Local Control Funding Formula. Along with steering more money to low-income students, foster youth and English learners, the funding law spells out areas of student and school performance that districts must address in their Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP, an annual improvement plan. These include involving parents and preparing students for life after graduation.

The law designates chronic absenteeism as an indicator of student engagement. The argument for including high school is that the dashboard draws public attention and attention steers funding. Districts with student groups that are rated red, designating the lowest performance, must spell out in their LCAPs how they will spend money for improvement.

Bruce Holaday and other board members indicated they too favored including high school grades in the indicator but didn’t press the issue during the board vote.

College and/or careers?

The college/career readiness indicator measures how well schools and districts are preparing students for education and work after graduation. The goal of the indicator is to encourage districts to offer all students a broad set of options, Kazanis said.

The state began collecting data last year and now, with two years of information, it too will become part of the dashboard, with districts and schools receiving colors based on their performance.

So far, though, the metrics have been test-heavy and college-oriented: how students perform on the Smarter Balanced assessments, how many pass two or more Advanced Placement tests and complete the course requirements for admission to California State University and the University of California. Completion of a career technical education pathway is also a metric, although state administrators and board members acknowledge the need for more precise ways to measure preparation for work.

The board expanded the indicator Thursday by adding two elements for the December dashboard: students who have received the State Seal of Biliteracy, demonstrating proficiency in speaking, reading and writing in at least one foreign language, and completion of military leadership training. The most popular way is through the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps offered by many districts. About 39,000 students who received the Seal of Biliteracy and 2,200 students who completed junior ROTC requirements would register as “prepared” for college/careers under the criteria that the board adopted.

But throughout the two-hour discussion, board members expressed misgivings about adding features without a clear understanding of what career/college means. Is it college and careers, implying programs should be preparing students for both? Or is it college or career, implying it’s fine to prepare some students for college and others for vocations?

For now, the Department of Education has fudged, by calling it college/career. The intent, said Deputy State Superintendent Keric Ashley, is eventually to call the indicator “college and career,” although it could take years to adopt better ways to measure the dual preparation.

Staff had recommended adding a basic math requirement to the State Seal of Biliteracy, but board members deleted that requirement. And they rejected the staff suggestion to add the Golden State Merit Diploma, given to students with B+ or higher grades in at least a half-dozen high school courses spanning multiple subjects. When the Legislature established the seal two decades ago, it required high grades on end-of-year exams. It was more rigorous then and is not widely publicized today.

Board member Patricia Rucker said the metrics in the indicator need to be uniformly consistent on the degree of rigor they require.

“There is no common understanding as to whether it is ‘or’ or ‘and’,” said board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon.

The board moved on, leaving that discussion for another day.

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