Researcher’s webinar challenges attendance myths

Researcher’s webinar challenges attendance myths

(Calif.) Everyone knows the best way to prevent tooth decay is by brushing and flossing every day. But not everyone – especially within the education community – recognizes the growing body of research that shows the best way to improve student outcomes is by ensuring class attendance – every single day.

“People say they know that attendance is important but you’ll also hear them say that it doesn’t matter if a student misses school now and then,” said Elaine Allensworth, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. “But what we’ve found is that even small number of absences can make a big difference later in student outcomes.”

Allensworth, whose research will be featured Tuesday, April 7, in a national webinar sponsored by California's Attendance Institute, a nonprofit school advocacy group based in Sacramento, offers up the educational experience of two fifth graders that might finish the year both with good attendance records, say 97 percent.

“But if one of them improves to 99 percent while the other has a declining rate – to 93 percent,” she explained. “The difference between them in being on track in the 9th grade is about 30 percent.”

Perhaps both the most fundamental and overlooked aspect of public education, attendance rates have attracted increased attention in recent years as educators and policy makers grapple with the many barriers to improving student performance.

Researchers at the University of Chicago consortium have been charged with looking closely at the city school system and producing work that will “stimulate evidence-driven discourse on vital issues.” One of the agency’s most recent studies examined disciplinary practices in the Chicago Public Schools and how a move away from zero tolerance to a more flexible approach to suspensions and expulsions has improved security and student learning time (Cabinet Report, March 30, 2015 http://bit.ly/1CX6QuD).

 A consortium report from December found that after grades, attendance habits among Chicago middle school students provided the best indicator of later academic performance on a range of measures.

Background characteristics, study habits and grit – all indicators that educators across the country have used to reconstruct performance models – proved to be only modestly successful predictors.

The finding was consistent with other major studies that have established a strong correlation between good attendance and higher grades and students graduating from high school and going on to college.

The nuance from the Chicago study, however, was that it emphasized the importance of grades and attendance in comparison to standardized test scores – a reverse of how most lawmakers, public policy experts and parents have traditionally weighted the three indicators.

“A lot of people think performance is all about tested skills and so there’s been a lot of money put into programs aimed at improving student test scores – but what we find is that improvements in attendance in the middle grades are associated with better high school outcomes than improving test scores,” said Allensworth.

“It’s absolutely more important to improve attendance than to improve test scores,” she said in an interview. “And we also find that when you improve attendance, you improve test scores.”

The issue for parents, said Allensworth, is adopting a mindset that missing any school time should be avoided.

“The problem is that you, as a parent, never know when your child is going to miss something that puts them behind,” she explained. “What we find is that when a student falls behind, they tend not to ask for help in catching up and they become frustrated or confused and when that happens, they tend to withdraw. There’s this downward spiral.”

Tuesday’s webinar, which is free, will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. CDT.  The major focus of the event is to refute the common misconception that attendance isn’t a primary indicator of student success.