Every School Day Counts: The Forum Guide to Collecting and Using Attendance Data
NCES 2009-804
February 2009

Challenge: Standard Data Under Nonstandard Conditions

First, the collection of attendance data is complicated by the unit of time used to track attendance—whether by the minute, hour, class period, half-day, or full-day. For example, consider the contrast between elementary schools, where students are typically with the same teacher all day, and middle and high schools where students may change teachers each period throughout the day. While it can be efficient to mark elementary students absent or present for the whole day, it may be more suitable to capture older students' attendance for each class period. Furthermore, daily attendance counts will not be correct if staff do not understand how to aggregate data from separate classrooms, buildings, or school periods.

For more information about data from nontraditional education
settings, see the Forum Guide to Elementary/Secondary Virtual Education.

Second, certain students may be difficult to track for attendance purposes because, for example, they spend a portion of the day or week at a special education center, take a class at a postsecondary institution or private school, participate in a vocational class, or temporarily attend a juvenile correctional facility. Care must be taken not to duplicate attendance data when students are counted in more than one setting at the same time. Another category of students who can be difficult to track are those taking virtual courses. Attendance in an online setting may be defined differently than attendance in a physical classroom due to the focus on student-paced course completion instead of seat time.

Finally, conflicts between software programs provided by vendors and a school's data collection system can present substantial challenges. When, for example, attendance software collects data based on a half-day unit of time, but state or local policy requires full-day measures, the school faces a conflict. Even when data are transformed to bridge these differences, data quality often suffers as a result of the added manipulation of data.

RECOMMENDATION: PLAN CAREFULLY WITH INPUT FROM ATTENDANCE DATA COLLECTORS, REPORTERS, AND USERS. By involving a broad base of representatives of the potential users of attendance data, those who will report or record attendance, and the many settings in which students receive instruction, schools can develop a reliable data collection system. The units of time represented in attendance reporting must be as clearly defined as the attendance categories are. Measuring attendance in non-traditional/ multiple site settings requires clearly defined and commonly applied attendance codes, as well as effective communication among staff at each site.

Technology can also help track student "attendance" in online schools. Participation can be verified in such ways as documenting when students log on and off of their computers, the number of keystrokes, and logging when students call their teachers. See the Forum Guide to Elementary/Secondary Virtual Education for guidance on data collection, reporting, and policymaking for virtual education.

Careful planning at the district level, coordinated with state and federal reporting needs, will produce clear specifications for the attendance data system. These specifications are the foundation for conversations with in-house programmers or information software vendors. The Forum has a suite of products that can help decisionmaking about many aspects of hardware and software systems.

For more information about data system technology initiatives,
see the Forum Unified Education Technology Suite.