Congress makes school attendance a national priority

Congress makes school attendance a national priority

(District of Columbia) Increasing the emphasis on getting more of the nation’s K-12 students to show up for class, the newly-approved federal education law will require Title I schools to report chronic absenteeism broken down by subgroup.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by President Barack Obama last week, does away with the most onerous accountability mandate on schools – adequate yearly progress – while giving states new flexibility to design and implement their own systems for measuring student performance.

But Congress retained some key requirements such as annual assessments in grades three through eight and once in high school for math and English language arts, as well as the need to continue to identify persistently underperforming schools.

ESSA calls on states to create accountability systems that use multiple measures to gauge student outcome. The bill requires that states receiving Title I money must also collect and report “measures of school quality, climate and safety…”

Among the metrics listed that must be broken down by subgroup is chronic absenteeism – both excused and unexcused.

“It is good news that chronic absence data is included in the ESSA reauthorization for Title I schools because it moves us closer to the day when all districts will be using chronic absence data and acting on it,” said David Kopperud, an education programs consultant with the California Department of Education who helps oversee statewide attendance issues.

Long overlooked as a vehicle for improving public education, attendance is increasingly viewed as a fundamental first step in boosting student performance – especially among early learners.

According to a study from Johns Hopkins University, chronic absenteeism in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first through third grade. Johns Hopkins researchers also found a strong relationship between sixth-grade attendance and the percentage of students graduating on time or within a year of their expected high school graduation.

The University of Chicago reported last year that attendance and grades were the two greatest predictors of later academic performance among middle school students.

A number of states have already taken steps to address chronic absenteeism by making schools keep better track of attendance rates and report the numbers publicly.

In California, for instance, as many as 230,000 elementary students missed more than 18 days in 2014-15. As a result, lawmakers there have included attendance as one of the educational goals that districts must report on and set goals to improve – especially for low income students, English learners and foster youth.

The language adopted by Congress is similar:

‘‘(viii) Information submitted by the State educational agency and each local educational agency in the State, in accordance with data collection conducted pursuant to section 203(c)(1) of the Department of Education Organization Act (20 U.S.C. 3413(c)(1)), on –

‘‘(I) measures of school quality, climate, and safety, including rates of in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement, chronic absenteeism (including both excused and unexcused absences), incidences of violence, including bullying and harassment;…”

Kopperud points out that the new law requires chronic absenteeism rates to be disaggregated by all the significant subgroups, including racial and ethnic subgroups as well as subgroups for homeless students and foster youth.

He noted that ESSA will also allow Title II funds to be used for professional development in chronic absence reduction strategies.

One potential issue for California schools could be the definition of “chronic absenteeism.” The state sets the mark at any student missing 10 percent of the school year, while the new federal Title I rule is based on missing 15 days of the school year.