Student Well-Being

As Studies Stress Link to Scores, Districts Get Tough on Attendance

By Robert C. Johnston — October 18, 2000 6 min read
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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the more regularly students attend school, the better they are likely to do. The real news, however, might be just how much better.

In Minneapolis, a recent study found that students who were in class 95 percent of the time were twice as likely to pass state language-arts tests as students with attendance rates of 85 percent.

Other urban districts are increasingly reaching similar conclusions about the link between attendance and achievement. Looking for any edge they can get to meet demands to raise scores, they are deciding that their old and often poorly enforced attendance polices are behind the times.

“It’s an outgrowth of common sense hitting you over the head, districts trying to spur achievement with the resources they have, and better research,” Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, based in Washington, said of the renewed attention to student attendance.

As districts revise their rules, achievement—not discipline— becomes the focus. In addition to spelling out new and higher attendance targets, administrators are using improved data gathering, parental outreach, and counseling to help meet their attendance goals.

“The goal is not to punish kids, but to raise achievement,” said Angele Passe, the executive director of student, family, and community partnerships for the 49,000-student Minneapolis schools. “We can no longer have a dog-catcher mentality, where you chase them, catch them, close the door, and hold them there.”

In San Francisco, the court-appointed monitor of the city’s public schools has voiced alarm over new data that show striking gaps in attendance and achievement by race and ethnicity. He has publicly challenged the district to do a better job of keeping students in school.

“Attendance is so basic that education reformers too often ignore it,” said Stuart Biegel, a professor of education and law at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is monitoring San Francisco’s compliance with a 1983 desegregation plan. “This is an issue we will continue to look at closely.”

Improving Policy

Minneapolis officials were so impressed by their research findings that they decided to revise the district’s attendance policy for the first time in 20 years.

A report released last week reinforced the district’s own work. The study found that minority students in Minnesota who increase attendance by 1 percentage point are likely to raise their scores on state reading and mathematics tests at least 1 percentage point.

“Mathematics scores are particularly responsive and sensitive to small changes in attendance,” concludes the report, written by Samuel L. Myers Jr., a professor of human relations and social justice at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Angele Passe

Minneapolis officials began rewriting the district’s attendance policy by surveying the community about the old regulations. “What we found absolutely amazed me,” Ms. Passe said.

One school gave a student unexcused absences for a family vacation, for example. But her sibling’s absence was excused at another school, and she was allowed to make up the work she missed.

Elsewhere in the district, immigrant families often leave for long periods around the holiday season without understanding that their children will fail classes as a result.

“Students would show up and be told that they had flunked the class,” Ms. Passe said.

The goals of the new policy include making sure that attendance rules are more uniform, that parents understand them, and that schools get quick, accurate attendance data from the district.

One Minneapolis middle school already has closed its campus at lunchtime after new attendance data revealed consistently high absentee rates at the 4th and 5th periods.

Beginning next fall, students will be expected to attend school 95 percent of the time, which means they risk failing if they miss more than eight days a year.

When students fall below attendance goals, schools are to get in touch with their parents, set up in-school interventions, and determine how students will make up missed work.

Community Involvement

Student attendance also has been a big focus in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.

When officials of the 37,000-student Rochester district looked at attendance and achievement patterns, researchers found that students who had scored between 85 and 100 on the state English tests had attended school an average of 93 percent of the time. Students who scored below the 54th percentile had an 85 percent attendance rate.

The district is now phasing in new minimum attendance requirements, shooting to hit 93 percent districtwide by 2004. Students are now required to attend school 85 percent of the time, or 153 days a year. The new policy would add the equivalent of 14 days of school.

Rochester also is getting the community to help with its efforts. Attendance information is shared with community organizations such as the YMCA, city recreation programs, and churches so that they can help reinforce the commitment to school attendance.

In addition, the city has coordinated a summer-jobs program for students who maintain at least C averages and who attend school at least 90 percent of the time.

“We must deconstruct the policies that encourage kids to miss or leave school, and construct the incentives to get them to stay,” said Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of the Rochester schools. “Attendance should be linked to achievement.”

Meanwhile, Buffalo is already seeing gains that officials attribute to relatively simple adjustments in the district’s attendance policy this fall. By stating a new minimum attendance rate—85 percent—and making it clear, for the first time, that students who fall short cannot take final exams, the district seems to be raising attendance.

In report covering the first five weeks of the school year, one Buffalo high school’s attendance rate went from 81 percent in the same period last year to 88 percent. The yearlong average-attendance rate for the school last year was 76 percent, which mean that one in every four students was absent.

The 47,000-student Buffalo district is providing home visits for students who have health problems, and automated phone calls to homes for every absence.

“Children and families are making better choices,” said Susan Doyle, the principal of the Buffalo Traditional School and the chairwoman of the district’s attendance committee. “They’re changing doctor’s appointments, and students are coming to see me before and after school, not during classes.”

‘Revealing, Disappointing’

In San Francisco, Mr. Biegel, the court-appointed monitor, found that the city schools handle attendance inconsistently. In addition, the district has been slow to process and return data to schools.

“Are there interventions? Who’s calling the parent or guardian?” Mr. Biegel said. “These are intuitively simple, yet there is a big difference in how this is done from school to school.”

Samuel L. Myers Jr.

The consequences are clear, he added. For starters, it took six months for the 60,000-student district to produce school-by-school attendance data for his monitoring team.

That information, he wrote in his July report, “is as revealing as it is disappointing.”

It showed that just 18.6 percent of African-American high school students, and just 24 percent of Hispanic students, attend school 91 percent of the time or better, compared with 68 percent of Chinese-Americans and 62 percent of Japanese-Americans. The rate was 42 percent for white students.

School officials quoted in Mr. Biegel’s report said they need more staff members to make calls and track attendance—additions that are too expensive in a district facing budget cuts. Indeed, absences may be underreported, one official suggested in the report.

And while transportation issues are partly to blame for tardiness and absences in San Francisco, one counselor told the monitoring team that students need help dealing with academic deficiencies and family problems.

The counselor is quoted as seeing a pattern of students with low attendance “coming from low- income households with working parents, suffering from a lack of parental supervision and an unstructured home environment.”

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