Chronic Absenteeism Part II: Time and Commitment

untitled-1After an overwhelming response to our last post about chronic absenteeism, we thought we would dive a little deeper into the subject. Identifying students who are experiencing chronic absenteeism—which is most often described as missing 10 percent or more of school—is relatively straightforward. As many school administrators know, it’s also one of the most powerful early warning indicators out there. Yet it does require staff time, knowledge of a school’s database system, some Excel skills, and an ongoing commitment.

Chronic absenteeism is different than attendance in that it focuses on individual students and looks at all absences, whether they are excused or not. In addition, most attendance systems, like average daily attendance, look at attendance in the aggregate, and as a result, some students can be missed.

For example, Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Bryrnes make this case in one of the most widely quoted reports on the subject: The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools. In this report, a powerful case is made against using average daily attendance and for looking at individual school records instead. For example, as the report clarifies, “it is possible for a school to have 90 percent average daily attendance and still have as many as 40 percent of its students chronically absent because on different days different students are in school.”

At present, many organizations, as well as the federal government, are encouraging states in partnership with schools and school districts, to adopt chronic absenteeism as one of their accountability measures in the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind, and was signed into law on December 10th, 2015. ESSA provides more flexibility to schools by requiring each state to use five indicators of success with the fifth indicator being left to the discretion of the state. Each state is required to create a plan and provide it to the federal government next year. Colorado is currently creating their plan and their efforts are available on the state Department of Education’s website.

We’ve found that monitoring chronic absenteeism on a weekly basis provides a wealth of insight into patterns and trends among students. Our current approach is to:

  1. Pull a weekly attendance report from Infinite Campus or PowerSchool (Colorado school databases) each Monday
  2. Drop the data into a spreadsheet
  3. Rank each student into one of three attendance tiers:
    1. Red (60 percent or less)
    2. Yellow (61 percent to 79 percent)
    3. Green (80 percent or more)
  4. Examine changes between weeks and student’s rate for the entire school year

Because chronic absenteeism looks at all absences, both excused and unexcused, we have to make sure we’re using the right attendance report, and that our formulas match the number of possible school days for the week.  This information is then moved into a relatively simple and straightforward report that our staff and AmeriCorps members use to prioritize their time and focus for the week.

So far, we’ve found success with the model. Having a direct view of who is attending and who is not attending, provides clarity. This not only helps with prioritizing, but it also helps staff and AmeriCorps members quickly identify who is at risk, who is slipping and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. For us, it’s another data-driven tool for improving education among vulnerable students.

The Rise of Colorado’s Dropout Rate

As we start the new school year, we reflect on last year’s dropout rate. After eight years of steady decline, the dropout rate in Colorado has gone up. While the percentage itself doesn’t seem like a wide swing, when you look at the raw numbers and imagine the future for each of those youth, a sense of urgency returns. Ideally we would see this number continue to go down until disappearing. After all the hard work schools and communities have invested into developing systems and supports for these students, why is it going up?

Before looking at those questions, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. If we go back two years or at least two cycles ago for the data—to the 2012-2013 school year—the dropout rate was 2.5 percent. It was 2.5 percent last year too. Here’s a quick view of dropout numbers:

  • 2014-2015: 11,114 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2013-2014: 10,546 Students, 2.4 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2012-2013: 10,664 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate

You’ll notice that while the dropout rate was the same, there were 450 more students who dropped out last year compared to 2012-2013. This is because there are more students attending school in Colorado, which is impacting both the number of students and the rate. However, I think we would all agree that 450 students is a lot. And 11,114 students are too many.

So what is happening? It is uncertain right now, but we have two lines of thinking.

Our first line is that the improved job market is providing students with other avenues besides graduation. In the past, there were no jobs and so school increased the prospects of getting a job. Connected to this issue is the increased cost of living in our rapidly changing state. The high cost of rent is requiring some youth to work to support their families. For the long term, we know that having an education is absolutely essential.

Our next line of thinking is that these students are facing extreme barriers. While the schools and communities have made dramatic steps forward in helping these students, we might be nearing the end of those developments. The issues they face, like extreme poverty, sexual orientation, homelessness, court involvement, and the foster care system—to name just a few—go beyond what any single agency or school can solve.

As things move forward we hope to understand why the rate went up. Whatever the exact answers might be, we believe it will take broad coordination between all youth-serving agencies and organizations to see the next eight year reduction in the dropout rate.