Leave Regular Radio Behind
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Most States Plan To Use Student Absences To Measure School Success

Sara Wong for NPR

How do you judge how good a school is? Test scores? Culture? Attendance?

In the new federal education law (the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA) states are asked to use five measures of student success. The first four are related to academics — like annual tests and graduation rates. The fourth measures proficiency of English language learners.

The fifth is the wild card — aimed at measuring "student success or school quality" — and the law leaves it to states to decide.

The final state plans have all been submitted: 36 states and the District of Columbia are using some form of chronic student absenteeism.Many of the states' plans still need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The folks over at FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University, put together a report analyzing states' recently-submitted ESSA plans. Chronic absenteeism, the report points out, is by far the most popular non-academic indicator.

"I remember when nobody really knew what you meant when you said chronic absenteeism," says one of the report's authors, Phyllis Jordan. "There's such a strong connection between attendance and achievement. It's used in these plans as a non-academic measure, but it's tied to academics."

We've reported extensively on chronic absence, a relatively new metric for schools. Instead of looking beyond the average attendance rate, schools track how many days each student misses — and how many students are missing 10 percent or more of the school year. Research shows that such students are way more likely to fall behind and eventually drop out.

The latest national numbers suggest that more than 6 million students are "chronically absent."

Most states (27) defined chronic absence using the 10 percent metric. Using a percentage, experts say, rather than a set number of days, allows for easier comparisons across states – because schools have different numbers of days in their school years.

"Research tells us that kids shouldn't miss 10 percent or more of the school year, that's the tipping point for kids," says Jordan, "but there isn't really research that tells us how many chronically absent kids are too many for a school."

Some states are setting the bar high for this school year: Connecticut wants fewer than 5 percent of students to be labeled chronically absent in a school – but only 16 percent of schools in the state meet that goal now, according to national data. Even states with a higher bar – like Hawaii, which set a goal of 9 percent – may be stretching. In their plan, they estimate only 49 of their 260 schools would meet that goal.

According to research, the biggest differences in chronic absence rates exist between schools in the same district. Therefore, in order to reduce absenteeism, individual schools need action plans and statewide metrics don't always paint a clear picture of what's happening.

"What I worry about is what happened with test scores," says Jordan. "You don't want that to happen with attendance. You don't want a heavy hand on attendance because there are now stakes attached."

Most schools already have access to this data — they take attendance every day, the change is in how they look at that data. Because it's new, state plans don't give chronic absence a lot of weight in how they judge their schools overall — so there's not too much at stake right away. The report says that's a good thing — it will give administrators and educators time to get familiar with the metric — and figure out how they can improve school by school.

The fact that all these states are paying attention to chronic absence is promising," she says. "The trick will be to do it right, with realistic, consistent goals, and empower schools and districts to get kids to come to schools."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.