Lawsuits highlight need for accurate attendance collection

Lawsuits highlight need for accurate attendance collection

(Mo.) A pair of lawsuits alleging Missouri schools fudged attendance data for accreditation purposes underscores why student needs must be the focus when using attendance data to inform decisions that affect districts.

Schools throughout the country receive funding based on average daily attendance, but intervention specialists use roll sheets as the starting point to target support services for students who are at risk or already chronically absent. To actually help students, however, experts note how important it is that the data be as accurate as possible.

“Average daily attendance is a large part of district funding in many states, so it needs to be collected accurately at least for funding purposes,” said David Kopperud, an education programs consultant with the California Department of Education and chairperson for the state’s attendance review board.

“But all districts regardless of how they are funded should be using that data to try to reduce the chronic absenteeism among disadvantaged student groups so schools can help them succeed and graduate,” he said in an interview. “To do that, it’s really important for attendance to be tracked accurately.”

Research has long shown that high rates of absenteeism can lower students’ academic achievement while increasing their risk of dropping out or becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to establish accountability systems that include annual test scores, graduation rates for high schools, an additional academic indicator for pre-secondary schools and a measure of how well English learners are achieving proficiency.

A fifth indicator calls for a measure of “school quality or student success,” and of the final state plans which have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval, 36 states and the District of Columbia have listed reducing chronic student absenteeism as their final accountability measure.

In Missouri, the state’s school performance system puts an emphasis on test scores, graduation rates and attendance figures.

The Riverview Gardens School District, located in St. Louis, lost state accreditation in 2007 due to low academic performance and financial problems. The state Board of Education voted to move the district up to provisional accreditation in January, citing improvements made in recent years.

Separate lawsuits brought against Riverview Gardens by middle and elementary school principals in the district allege that administrators raised attendance rates by having secretaries change partial attendance days to full days, marking students as present when they were sent home, and erasing record of students arriving late to school.

The issue is reminiscent of a scandal uncovered by The Columbus Dispatch in 2012, in which Columbus City Schools officials were found to have wiped 2.8 million absences from the attendance system over about 5 years. The district is still in the process of implementing recommendations from an internal audit designed to prevent such actions in the future.

Both Ohio and Missouri selected chronic absenteeism as their measure of school quality or student success in the final ESSA plans, citing the abundance of research demonstrating the correlation between good attendance and positive student outcomes.

“There’s this increasing accountability for attendance, which I think is a good thing because when you have disadvantaged student groups, one of the best ways to help them is to make sure they’re regularly attending school,” Kopperud said. “That will help make sure they graduate and that they’ll avoid that school-to-prison pipeline.”