Analysis: The hole in CA’s attendance data

Analysis: The hole in CA’s attendance data

Woody Allen once famously observed that 80 percent of success in life is showing up. For students in California public schools, the bar is much lower—they only need to get to class a fraction of the time to still qualify as having perfect attendance.

How is that possible? A glaring flaw in the state’s new school accountability system calls on schools to count as absent only those students who miss entire days. Thus, students not counted are those in high school who skip a period here and there, as well as children in primary grades that come in late or leave early.

This is a big problem and should be corrected immediately.

Already, about 12 percent of K-12 students in California are classified as being chronically absent—defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year. That’s almost 750,000 students, and because they are missing too much school, all of them are putting their futures at risk.

As educators, we know how hard it is for a child to make up learning time, even just a day or two. The research shows that students who are consistently absent are far more likely to drop out, to become involved in the criminal justice system, and to rely on public services.

It was with these significant public policy issues in mind that legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown agreed in 2012 to make increasing student attendance one of the state’s eight educational goals. As a result, districts are required to keep track of students that miss too much school and report to the public how schools are working to improve those numbers.

Last week, the state released absentee data by district for the first time. Unfortunately, these numbers do not give parents, taxpayers or lawmakers a very accurate picture of how well our schools are doing in improving attendance.

In defense of the full-day count, officials at the California Department of Education say that an existing state law is driving the calculation method. By statute, the definition of chronically absent is a student who misses 10 days in the school year. This is the same section of the education code that holds parents responsible for ensuring their kids attend school and authorizing criminal sanctions if they don’t.

The CDE says the definition for accountability purposes needed to be consistent with the definition used for criminal prosecution.

I don’t agree. A law that has been found to be lacking shouldn’t be allowed to stand, it should be fixed. We shouldn’t be twisting public policy just so that it will mesh with a flawed concept.

I can’t imagine that any dedicated educator would argue with me. More than that, there are thousands of dedicated teachers in schools up and down the state that take daily attendance very seriously. They know who is missing class and they make the efforts to help bring those students back into the fold—regardless of state policy.

It seems a shame that the CDE, the state board of education and the Brown administration are not able to grasp the concept.


Rick Carder has had 33 years of education experience with certificated, classified, managerial and executive personnel. Carder is a past president of the California Association of Administrators of State and Federal Education Programs, and is the current president of National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators. He was also director for Categorical Programs for Grant JUHSD.

Attendance Institute is a non-profit based in El Dorado Hills whose core mission is to substantially improve student attendance and, ultimately, achievement.

To learn more visit the Attendance Institute. more