The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was notorious for its heavy reliance on standardized test scores to determine school quality. NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), utilizes test performance as only one indicator of quality education. ESSA contains a total of five indicators to ensure that schools provide quality education: proficiency in reading and math, high school graduation rates, English language proficiency, student growth, and school quality/student success (SQSS). SQSS, often dubbed the “non-academic” or fifth indicator, is an unprecedented move by ESSA to place a value on elements of learning that are not traditionally associated with academics. States have a substantial amount of freedom to decide which SQSS indicator(s) they will use, and as of now, it appears that states are tackling this issue in many different ways.
The American Youth Policy Forum is in the process of conducting a scan of the fifty-two ESSA state plans for a broader understanding of how states are approaching accountability. As I have been conducting the scan, I have paid particularly close attention to which SQSS indicator(s) states have chosen. At least thirty-six states have chosen to measure chronic absenteeism as an SQSS indicator. At least twenty-seven of these states define chronic absenteeism as missing ten percent or more of the school year. Other states choose to measure the inverse of chronic absenteeism. For instance, the District of Columbia calculates the “percentage of enrolled students who were present/in attendance for 90% or more of enrolled days.”. Chronic absenteeism’s popularity as an SQSS indicator stems from its significant advantages as a measurement. First, it fulfills all criteria for a non-academic indicator (Figure 1). Second, most schools in the US currently calculate daily attendance, which means that the and systems to measure chronic absenteeism are already available.
Figure 1: ESSA Requirements and Chronic Absenteeism
Third, there is a correlation between chronic absence and academic proficiency, school climate, and on-time graduation. Research conducted by The Hamilton Project demonstrates that fourth and eighth grade proficiency in math was nearly double in schools with the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism compared to schools having the highest rates of chronic absenteeism (Figure 2). The consequences are clear: if states do not address the issue of chronic absenteeism, results on their academic indicators will likely suffer.
Figure 2: Relationship between Chronic Absenteeism and School Outcomes in New York City
The overwhelming adoption of chronic absenteeism as an SQSS indicator is therefore heartening to observe. However, there is much to improve upon in how states define and measure chronic absenteeism. Certain states choose to define chronic absenteeism based on the number of days of school that a student misses rather than the percentage of the school year. Nevada, for example, defines chronic absenteeism as a student missing at least eighteen days of the school year. Using days over percentages can be problematic because the length of the school year can vary between different schools and districts. It would be possible for students to miss less than eighteen days of school but more than ten percent of the school year.
A report produced by FutureEd brings to light another potential problem with the way chronic absenteeism is defined. Although most states outline what constitutes a chronically absent student, they fail to define “the expectations for how few chronically absent students a school should have.” The lack of a realistic and consistent benchmark for schools to aim towards could make it difficult to accurately assess their progress.
One of the consequences of prioritizing attendance is that it could come at the cost of student participation in extracurricular activities that occasionally cut into school time. Ironically, an indicator aiming to improve school quality beyond academics could hamper the activities with the same intent. Without a uniform definition of what constitutes a ‘justifiable’ absence, using chronic absenteeism as an indicator could limit students’ abilities to pursue their passions outside of school.
The manner of reporting absences also requires deeper consideration. According to FutureEd, “Some systems automatically record students as present unless they are reported absent, while others require teacher input before a student is considered present. If the default is set to ‘present,’ attendance rates could appear artificially high when teachers fail to submit regular reports.” This potential to skew results is one of the reasons states should adopt multiple non-academic indicators to serve as checks on one another.
Contrary to concerns from The Hamilton Project that using multiple indicators would water down the attention directed to each one, most states seem to recognize that chronic absenteeism isn’t an all-encompassing solution to improving SQSS. Connecticut’s decision to include indicators for physical education and education in the arts implies that schools need to measure more than chronic absenteeism to make sure that students receive a well-rounded education. Other states have also included college and career-readiness as a fifth indicator to ensure that students achieve postsecondary success. In addition to chronic absenteeism, Illinois and several other approved state plans use “9th grade on track,” an indicator to determine the academic requirements for ninth graders to graduate on time. Arkansas also uses community service and achievement in science and computer science as SQSS indicators.
Chronic absenteeism is an important indicator of school quality and student success, and research shows that state would do well to address it. However, there is more to school quality than whether students attend class and more to learning than being present. To that end, states seem to be using the SQSS indicator as an opportunity to innovate and collaborate to develop methods of assessing school quality and student success that go beyond traditional benchmarks. It is encouraging to see them move beyond what has been tried and tested to create promising practices of their own.