The states, districts, and schools profiled in this chapter transformed attendance data into actionable information to improve attendance rates. Real students improved their attendance behaviors and educational opportunities as a result of educators acting on attendance data, working with families, and improving the effectiveness of attendance intervention efforts.
Around the country, states, districts, and schools are acting on attendance data to improve student attendance.
As school leaders in Sioux Falls, South Dakota reviewed the challenges of meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP), a common theme surfaced—student absenteeism. With access to detailed attendance records, the district took a long, focused look at the probable causes of their absenteeism and implemented a plan to educate the public about policy changes intended to boost attendance and achievement.
After analyzing two years of detailed student attendance data, district leaders identified which grades had the highest absence rates and at what grade intervals the greatest hikes in absenteeism occurred. Figure 1 shows the overall percentage of students with more than 10 absences at each grade level for school years 2005–06 and 2006–07. School leaders were concerned about absentee rates associated with the transition between schools. They saw that, during both school years, the greatest increases in the percentage of students with more than 10 absences were between the fifth and sixth grades, between the eighth and ninth grades, and between the eleventh and twelfth grades. Twelfth graders exhibited the highest rates of overall chronic absence with more than 40 percent of students missing more than 10 school days during each school year.
Moreover, figure 2 shows that district analysts found a statistically significant negative correlation between grade point average (GPA) and number of days absent from school.6 Put simply, it shows that the more absences students had, the more likely they were to have a GPA below 3.0 and, conversely, the fewer the absences, the more likely students were to have a 3.0 GPA or higher. This relationship was consistent for students at every performance level, regardless of whether or not the absence was excused.
These data had implications for each school's ability to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets for grades 3 through 8, because part of the state's AYP determination is based on either achieving an average daily attendance (ADA) rate at or above 94 percent, or showing progress in the ADA from the previous year. To achieve a 94 percent attendance rate, students could not be absent more than 10.56 days during a school year of 176 days.
Using attendance data as a means to investigate reasons for absences, the district discovered that two of the most common reasons for student absences were parent request or undocumented illness. Additionally, two-thirds of out-of-school suspensions at the high school level were for excessive absences, meaning that local policy was exacerbating the attendance problem by removing students who were already missing school from the classroom.
The district facilitated seven community meetings to share these analyses and the effects of missing 10 school days on a school's ability to meet AYP. Leaders changed the district's attendance policies to reflect the serious nature of the 10-absence threshold. In addition, rather than suspending students out-of-school for unexcused absences, the district made students responsible for spending extra time before or after school to make up missed assignments—all because policymakers had access to detailed, high–quality student attendance data.
In Colorado, leaders in the Aurora Public Schools were concerned about the increasing number of truant students. The school district took a proactive stance on truancy reduction by developing and implementing a districtwide program. The district superintendent personally visited the homes of students not in school. Schools increased their focus on accurate daily attendance accounting. The attendance policy and corresponding regulations were revised to clarify expectations. Protocols were developed. Seven district-level truancy specialists collaborated with the schools, families, and the courts to assist in remedying truancy issues. Each secondary school hired four or five of their teachers to work additional hours to case-manage 15 truant students each. The district implemented a range of interventions such as tutoring, counseling, Saturday school, parent support groups, and substance abuse treatment. Over 800 staff volunteered to mentor at-risk students. Although this truancy reduction program is in its infancy, positive results have already been noted at the elementary level and across the district as a whole.
Data at the end of the 2007–08 school year indicated that 78 percent of Aurora schools decreased the number of students with 10 or more unexcused absences (defined as habitual truants). Overall, the district reduced its number of habitually truant students from 15.2 to 14.7 percent, or by more than 250 fewer students who were habitually truant in the second year. Fully 51 chronically absent students were brought back to school by the October 2007 count date, increasing district funds by $350,000. As shown in table 1, there was success in truancy reduction at the elementary level, with chronic truants reduced from 6.4 percent to 2.6 percent. Middle schools and high schools began to standardize truancy tracking and set a baseline for comparisons. Although the percentage of truant dropouts at these grades increased from their 2006–07 levels, more than half of the district's secondary schools reduced their numbers of habitually truant students.
Determined to implement additional best practices for reducing truancy at all grade levels, Aurora established the Early Intervention Program in two schools during the second semester of 2007–08. Based on Project Respect in Pueblo, Colorado, this strengths-based program uses truancy specialists to provide intensive case management to students and their families, and collaborate with the families and the courts, as needed, to overcome barriers to school engagement and success. Attendance data enabled the district to measure the success of its efforts. Of the 41 students who participated in this program, 35 improved their attendance—a remarkable 82 percent. Among these 35 students, 18 improved by case management alone, without going to truancy court. The 17 students who appeared in truancy court all improved by the end of the year. Aurora Public Schools intends to expand this program for the 2008–09 year.
Colorado's Alamosa School District demonstrated how a plan to address school attendance problems can extend beyond the walls of educational institutions. Some of the district's schools include only two or three grade levels, and function as feeder schools for the next grade level. As shown in table 2, a troubling trend emerged from the district's feeder schools. In the 2006–07 school year, almost one third of the district's kindergarten and first-grade students were truant, missing at least two weeks of school per year. Although second and third-grade students had the least truancy at 10 percent, that rate doubled at the fourth and fifth-grade levels. Then, alarmingly, the rate increased to fully one half of the middle school students and 42 percent at the high school. While the rates were highest in middle school, the high truancy rate at the primary level was a concern, as it was thought to be the foundation for students' later attendance problems. The data provided a clear, unambiguous message that something needed to be done.
Instead of tackling the attendance problems in isolation, the district created a community partnership with joint responsibility among Social Services; the Center for Restorative Programs; and the offices of the District Attorney, Probation, and Mental Health. Prior to this collaboration, intervention did not begin until students had missed 30 days of school and the court system became involved—far too late for meaningful educational correction. By focusing on the earliest grades and promoting the importance of school, the collaboration created a role for each partner. Social Services added the statement "children will attend school regularly" to its personal responsibility contracts for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) clients. Principals referred families to the Center for Restorative Programs to help overcome barriers to attendance that ranged from parents' late work hours to lack of an alarm clock to the lack of clean clothes for the student. Probation officers became involved if the family was part of the court system. Poor student attendance soon had legal consequences for a family as it was interpreted as a sign of parental negligence.
School administrators in Colorado's Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 recently found that their building's attendance rates had fallen below the state average. Furthermore, the rates for American Indian and Hispanic students were disproportionately lower than other racial and ethnic groups.
In an effort to boost attendance rates, these schools are focusing on parent involvement. At the middle school level, administrators are proposing to include school attendance in the annual family contract, with a parent meeting scheduled once students miss more than 10 days of school, whether or not the absences are excused. At the high school level, administrators would like to limit excused absences to 10 per semester. In the early grades, the school board is now focusing outreach efforts on positive parent partnerships in order to prevent later attendance problems.
Colorado's Cherry Creek District has used its attendance data to unearth possible causes of student truancy. Teachers are now tracking attendance by period and determining whether or not absences are excused. The district begins its interventions with family notification and problem solving. If student attendance does not improve, data on classroom hours missed due to tardies and absences, both excused and unexcused, are used as part of the student profile for the Student Attendance Review Board. This group includes representatives from the school district, human services, and the juvenile assessment center; as well as a social worker, school deans, counselors, and mental health staff working to adjust the student's schedule or engagements. Student profiles have since indicated that students with chronic absences frequently have personal or family mental health concerns, substance abuse problems, significant family changes, and/or long-standing academic struggles.
Other examples of the productive use of robust attendance data come from districts and schools in Michigan, where the development of detailed attendance codes has helped staff decrease student absences and respond to state and federal accountability requirements. Most districts use multiple attendance codes to track daily attendance, highlight why students are not in school or in class periods, and identify students needing extra support due to family issues.
In addition to tracking where students are during the day as suggested by the taxonomy, some Michigan districts add codes to track students who arrive late and/or leave early. In Michigan's Center Line Public Schools, for example, counting early leavers as "absences" demonstrated to parents the importance of the full school day. If the student is not in school, valuable class time is missed resulting in lower performance levels. Since this change, the number of students leaving early for jobs or families leaving early for vacations has decreased.
One principal of an alternative high school in Michigan relies heavily on the computerized student management system's tardy and discipline referral codes. The school's mission is focused on developing struggling students into successful citizens, and the school now uses behavioral choices related to attendance as an example of good citizenship. Both the tardy and the discipline referral codes help staff identify the need for intervention strategies to help get students on track with attendance goals. Moreover, with recent staff reductions, using data technology has become even more important in targeting needed interventions and supporting staff.
To support improving student attendance efforts, Michigan established the Michigan Pupil Accounting and Attendance Association (MPAAA) over 70 years ago. MPAAA is comprised of an elected board, an appointed board, and over 500 members represented from local districts, public school academies, and regional pupil-count auditors from throughout the state. The group coordinates efforts with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), and the state's Center for Educational Performance & Information (CEPI) to ensure state and federal requirements are being effectively communicated and executed for enrollment, attendance, and pupil membership through training sessions, newsletters, and conferences. MPAAA and MDE provide guidance to districts in completing critical documentation affecting school funding and improving student attendance.