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

Challenge: Data Management and Communication

Data quality is dependent upon the quality of the system that collects, edits, and maintains the information. Quality suffers when education organizations lack clear policies and procedures for entering, verifying, and validating attendance data. Often, attendance clerks or other data entry staff do not have the time (and freedom from distractions) needed to ensure accuracy. They may not always understand their data quality responsibilities and the school's or district's procedures.

Clear communication is required among school personnel and between the state, school, and community. Data quality suffers when school staff members are not aware of attendance policies or lack consistent terms, definitions, rules, and procedures when dealing with attendance issues. Problems also arise when staff members fail to communicate effectively with parents and guardians to track students, identify a student's enrollment status, and gather the information needed to apply attendance codes correctly.

RECOMMENDATION: BUILD A CULTURE OF QUALITY DATA. A strong, commonly shared commitment to high-quality information resources can do a lot to ensure good data management and open communication. Developing a systematic process for encouraging and supporting data quality is the subject of two publications developed by the National Forum on Education Statistics. The Forum Guide to Building a Culture of Quality Data: A School and District Resource describes how to establish or improve a culture of data quality, including specific roles and responsibilities for principals, teachers, office staff, school board members, superintendents, data stewards/coordinators, and technology support personnel. A more recent publication, the Forum Curriculum for Improving Education Data: A Resource for Local Education Agencies, builds on the Forum Guide by providing lesson plans, instructional handouts, and resource materials for training K–12 school and district staff in developing this culture.

A culture of data quality encompasses both effective data collection and verification procedures. In other words, any effort to build a culture of quality data should include a standard process for communication between the front office, teachers, families, and staff at any learning site attended by the student. Training on the process and any changes to the process can help maintain agreement about standard operations across all stakeholder groups.

For more information about building a culture of data quality, see the following free resources from the Forum:

State and Local Efforts to Improve Data Quality

In Kentucky, a state-level audit of the attendance data collection process at selected schools has emerged as a helpful practice. In advance of the audit, the Kentucky Department of Education supplies each of the selected schools with a checklist of 32 attendance-related documents that will be requested during the audit. These documents include attendance records in addition to school schedules, teacher information, transportation information, and materials regarding specific groups of students (e.g., dropouts, hospitalized or homebound students, suspended students, seniors, students in the early grades, and program-based groups).

The checklist also includes the state's Attendance Audit Questionnaire. This survey gathers information about a school's attendance system, master schedule, data entry and verification procedures, monthly teacher reports on attendance, and the number of students involved with virtual high school, performance-based courses, and placement other than at school sites. Completed questionnaires must be signed by the principal or his/her designee before being submitted to the state education agency.

Additionally, attendance clerks in the Jefferson County Public Schools monitor school data with oversight and guidance from internal auditors who rotate between schools for on-site support. Moreover, personnel at the district office are assigned to specific schools for extra assistance including monitoring and problem solving.

Finally, school and district staff members use a handbook to guide truancy reduction efforts. This handbook provides detailed instructions about accessing the district's computer system and logging interventions with the families of absent students. In order to improve the accuracy of the attendance data, the county advises that attendance clerks be housed in a quiet setting. Another best practice is to alert attendance clerks through the computer system when a student acquires three unexcused absences.

RECOMMENDATION: COMMUNICATE THE IMPORTANCE OF BETTER ATTENDANCE DATA. A commitment to data use actually leads to better data. One key to improving attendance data may be highlighting for educators the benefits of better attendance data and the potential these data have for improving student achievement. Low quality, vague attendance data cannot be trusted to guide schools and districts toward policies and practices that improve student attendance. High-quality, detailed attendance data can provide schools and districts with information that can be confidently used to guide improvements in policies and practices that impact student attendance. Leaders at the state, district, and local levels can build a demand for better attendance data—from those who collect the data to those who use the data—by reinforcing this opportunity to improve student attendance, which is linked to more positive student outcomes.