Student Well-Being Opinion

Attending to Attendance

By Gary Hoachlander, Ann Dykman & Steven Godowsky — May 16, 2001 8 min read
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If we graded attendance the same way we do academic tests, the nation’s high schools would receive an A. In 1997, the average daily attendance rate for U.S. high schools stood at 92.7 percent. Seems impressive, doesn’t it? That’s the problem.

Reform efforts will not amount to much if students aren’t in school; attendance and achievement are linked.

With all the attention being paid these days to school accountability for students’ performance on academic assessments, it’s easy to overlook an indicator like attendance, especially when the data don’t set off alarm bells. But consider this: In the typical 180-day school year, an average daily attendance rate of 93 percent means students are missing, on the whole, more than 13 days of school—about 21/2 weeks of class time. If schools operated year round, we’d be talking about an average annual absentee rate of more than 17 days. There isn’t an employer anywhere who wouldn’t be concerned about such a record.

What’s worse, many urban schools don’t come close to that national average. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which alone accounts for nearly 1.5 percent of all public school students in the country, seven senior high schools ranging in size from 1,300 to 4,400 students had attendance rates of 85 percent or less in 1999-2000. Students in those schools missed an average of 24 days or more during the school year. Attendance rates were less than 90 percent (18 days missed) in another 29 of the district’s high schools.

In 1999, Baltimore city high schools had an average daily attendance rate of 77.3 percent (more than 41 days missed). School report cards from other cities—Oakland, Calif., Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, to name just a few—show several high schools with attendance rates of less than 88 percent.

Moreover, these figures probably understate the true problem by a large margin. In most states, attendance, not enrollment, drives state funding of schools. That’s a powerful incentive for schools to define and measure attendance liberally. As long as absent students have an acceptable excuse, schools in many states may count those students as present for funding purposes, even when they are nowhere near a classroom. Excused absences may include those related to legitimate school functions such as field trips or sporting events, illness, and often almost anything else that will produce a written note from a parent.

As important as it is to stress student achievement and to focus educators and the public on raising academic standards, strengthening curriculum, and improving test scores, the simple fact is that these efforts will not amount to much if students aren’t in school. One of the stronger findings from education research is that attendance and achievement are linked. Time on task matters.

Schools must combat a pervasive attitude on the part of both students and parents that attendance is a matter of choice.

Some schools understand how important it is to push for higher attendance rates even when, to the casual observer, the numbers don’t seem to warrant much concern. One example is Paul M. Hodgson Vocational-Technical High School in Newark, Del., which made attendance a priority when it launched a schoolwide reform plan in 1990.

Hodgson gradually raised its attendance rate from 89 percent in 1990 to 96.1 percent in 1999. This achievement exceeds both the district’s standard of excellence and even the school’s own original goal.

The first seeds of progress were sown in a committee that met monthly to brainstorm incentives that might get more students to school. The teachers, administrators, and counselors on the committee had to combat a pervasive attitude on the part of both students and parents that attendance was a matter of choice. Missing entire school days for activities like routine doctor appointments and hunting trips had been acceptable practice for both students and parents.

Part of this lackadaisical attitude might have been traced to Hodgson’s former status as a shared-time vocational center that attracted many low-achieving students. In the 1980s, however, the school converted to a full-time, comprehensive vocational-technical high school. The emphases placed on attendance and high learning standards were key first steps to becoming a quality school of choice, and Hodgson also committed itself to full accountability for results by publishing a school performance report card each marking period.

The effort began modestly with rewards for perfect attendance, such as free breakfasts, announcements over the intercom system, certificates of recognition, and letters of praise sent home to parents. These friendly competitions among homerooms and grade levels yielded an increase of about 3.5 percent between 1990 and 1996. At the start of the 1996-97 school year, Hodgson established an attendance-review board to deal with issues of chronic absenteeism. Students who had missed more than 12 days of school were scheduled for meetings with their parents, the principal, guidance counselors, and selected teachers. As it turned out, this intervention helped somewhat, but it didn’t make a large enough dent in the absentee problem. It was time to get students’ attention.

In September 1998, Hodgson adopted what it calls the No Credit Status Plan, which allows students to miss no more than five days of school in a semester—regardless of the reason. If they do, they cannot earn course credit unless they make up the time through the school’s extra-help program. They can do this in one of three ways:

  • They may attend special one- to two-hour sessions after school with selected teachers (who are paid overtime).
  • They may complete an independent-study project with teacher or administrator approval.
  • They may work directly with their teachers on a prearranged schedule.

There are generally no exceptions to this no-credit- status attendance rule, other than students with chronic medical conditions. But the policy is not intended to be draconian. Students who are designated as “NC” may appeal the decision, and others, who do not have attendance problems, may take advantage of the extra-help sessions for tutoring or general enrichment.

Most school administrators believe the data serve only one clear purpose: securing state funding.

After one year, the school’s new policy produced a jump of a full percentage point in the attendance rate, its most impressive result to date. Since 1992, Hodgson has reduced annual absences by 9.26 days per student. Multiply that by the school’s population of 950 students, and the total equals more than 9,000 instructional days saved during the year.

An upward trend on a line chart isn’t the only cause for celebration at Hodgson. Although the school hasn’t done controlled studies to link attendance to achievement, there is a palpable attitude change among students, who often go to great lengths to schedule appointments or handle family obligations at times that won’t interfere with class. During the same period that attendance rose at the school, disciplinary problems diminished, and the schoolwide grade point average climbed to 2.51.

At a time when some states are debating whether to increase the length of the school year to help raise student achievement, this school’s relatively low-cost alternative—keeping more students in class during the regular school year— should get special notice. So should the efforts of other schools and districts. For example, Kentucky’s Jefferson County schools, which encompasses the city of Louisville and surrounding towns, has a large team of assessment counselors who intervene in cases of chronic absenteeism. Their job is to find out why students aren’t in school and try to help them get past the obstacles. This service and others have helped Jefferson County increase its attendance rate from 92.1 percent in 1996 to 93.1 percent in 2000.

Keeping more students in class during the regular school year should get special notice.

Some state departments of education also recognize the link between time in class and achievement. For example, Kentucky made attendance a priority in its statewide reform act of 1990, and Pennsylvania offers incentive grants to schools that improve attendance rates. Still, attendance is often missing from the indicators published in statewide school report cards. The Web sites of many state education departments do not offer information on statewide or even district attendance averages, although they are chock full of data on student test scores.

This absence is ironic, since attendance is one piece of information that virtually every school in the country has been collecting for many years. Unfortunately, most school administrators believe the data serve only one clear purpose: securing state funding. Hodgson is just one of the schools that has discovered how valuable attendance numbers can be in the effort to gauge progress on overall improvement.

Getting students to spend more time in school will not automatically produce higher achievement gains. Schools also must take many other steps to strengthen instruction and other practices. But paying more attention to attendance is a sound, practical strategy that every school can pursue. As Woody Allen once said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” It is time we told that to our students.

Gary Hoachlander is the president of MPR Associates, a Berkeley, Calif.-based education consulting company that helped the high school in this essay develop a system to collect and use data for school improvement. Steven Godowsky was the principal of the school until July 2000 and now is the assistant superintendent of the New Castle County (Del.) Vocational-Technical School District. Ann Dykman is a communications associate for MPR.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Attending to Attendance


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