Student Well-Being

Tracking Student Attendance Under Remote Learning Is a Complicated Mess

By Penelope Blackwell, Claire Fox, Jenna Gyimesi, Kara Grant, Carter Johnson & Kyra Senese — July 13, 2020 8 min read
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Tracking student attendance under remote learning this spring was complicated and oftentimes ad hoc, a messy process that could continue to be a big problem if schools return to full-time virtual learning anytime this school year or do some combination of in-person and online education.

Consider the case of Queens High School for Information, Research, and Technology in New York City. Several weeks after the city school system transitioned to virtual instruction, a new link appeared on the school’s website. Each morning, the school’s 400 students were supposed to mark themselves present by clicking through to an ad hoc Google Form, developed by computer science teacher Jeff Kaufman.

The strategy was just one among a myriad of approaches used in the nation’s largest school district, highlighting a major problem that bedeviled K-12 systems across the country during the extended coronavirus-related closures. Even when students showed up for remote instruction, schools had no widely agreed-upon way of tracking attendance.

Inconsistent data-collection practices led to unreliable data, raising questions about everything from graduation requirements to school funding formulas.

“We just saw a huge disruption in both our systems of data collection and reporting and our very notion of what is attendance and how it’s defined,” said Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign. “Data collection is about definitions, at the end of the day.”

The problem is hardly limited to New York.

In the nation’s capital, district leaders were focused in the spring on whether students were engaged “in some way,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told the Washington Post. That could mean picking up an attendance packet, logging into a software program, or contacting a school psychologist. In Los Angeles, attendance data released by the country’s second-largest school district focused on whether students had recorded three or more interactions with their school in a given week.

And, according to a survey of more than 450 school districts across the country released in June by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, “only half of districts nationally expect teachers to track their students’ engagement in learning through either attendance tracking or one-on-one check-ins.”

The 1.1 million-student New York City school district embodies the resulting challenge of inconsistent attendance data. The city’s Department of Education released citywide attendance statistics only once since the start of the pandemic, on April 17, reporting that roughly 84 percent of students regularly attended school between April 6 and 14, down from an average of 92 percent last year.

But that figure didn’t include information on roughly 200,000 students in nearly 350 schools that didn’t submit attendance numbers to the city’s database. And with schools responsible for tracking their own “attendance,” what the term has actually meant on the ground has been as varied as checking a name on an online form, following engagement over the course of several classes in a day, or using software to monitor student participation.

The city’s education department did not respond to requests for more recent data or further comment.

“I don’t know how [the education department] can say how accurate [the data] are or what they actually reflect,” said Kaufman, the computer science teacher who developed his school’s attendance-tracking system.

‘We Have to Take Action’

One danger with such inconsistency in attendance-tracking efforts is that educators, district leaders, and state policymakers aren’t getting a complete picture of which students are left behind as the coronavirus continues to upend daily school life.

Everyone has heard the first-hand accounts and read the news reports about spotty attendance during remote learning, said Emma Garcia, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute who studies education policy. But no one has a good systematic overview of what attendance patterns actually are, which complicates the role of researchers and policymakers in crafting responses to the pandemic. Data must ultimately inform efforts to direct resources and time to schools and districts needing it the most.

That sentiment was echoed by Hedy Chang, the executive director and president of Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based initiative aimed at promoting research and policy action around attendance. While it wasn’t realistic to expect districts to develop and implement perfect attendance systems immediately after the pandemic hit, Chang said, it is critical that districts adjust and improve their systems quickly now to prepare for the 2020-21 academic year.

“We have to take action, really learn from it, have feedback loops, and then improve our metrics,” she said. “It’s urgent that we put in place the foundation.”

Another issue is graduation and promotion. In part due to the trouble tracking attendance after coronavirus-related school closures, Chang said, many districts took a “hold harmless” approach, in which student grades either couldn’t get worse than they were prior to school being closed, or were converted to pass-fail. But there’s been tremendous variations across states and sometimes among districts within an individual state.

In Illinois, for example, the state’s board of education announced in May less stringent requirements for graduation eligibility, requiring fewer years of instruction in areas like language arts and math. And in New York state, the Board of Regents—responsible for administering the end-of-year exams that determine whether a student is eligible to graduate high school—announced in April that this year’s exams were canceled. They consequently loosened the graduation requirements in light of the cancellation.

Perhaps the biggest attendance-related question of all, though, has to do with funding. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education announced in March that it was waiving attendance accountability measures used under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act to determine its funding for school districts. And average daily attendance, one key indicator that many states use to determine funding to districts and schools, “is not going to exist anymore,” said Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign.

In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced even before schools closed in March that he would waive the requirement that students receive 180 days of instruction in order for schools to receive state funding.

‘That’s Powerful Information’

In response to the patchwork policy environment, some districts have gotten creative.

California’s 36,000-student Oakland Unified school district, for example, was not tracking districtwide attendance. Instead, officials have created a dashboard system that lets teachers and school leaders look at students’ engagement with school across a variety of indicators, from whether they have a laptop to if they have an internet connection to their teachers.

“That’s powerful information,” said Chang of Attendance Works.

Still, though, inconsistency is a problem. A look across a handful of New York City schools shows just how variable attendance tracking can be, even within a single district.

At Khalil Gibran International Academy, for example, students were marked as present if they logged into a single class each day. At the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, attendance was measured by whether students interacted with their teachers via email, phone call, or video conferencing at least once per day. And at William E. Grady High School, the principal elected to use a software program called Pupilpath to keep track of student attendance during each class period.

According to a city education department statement released in April, what’s being measured across schools using such disparate methods “cannot be considered attendance in the traditional sense.”

The hope is that even imperfect information will help schools support students and prevent learning loss. On the ground at places like Queens High School for Information, Research, and Technology, or QIRT, however, that’s been a challenge.

The school’s internal data showed a steady uptick in attendance. In April, an early snapshot via Google Forms pegged the school’s daily attendance at 50 percent. Within a week, that number had climbed to 64 percent. As of June 1, the school’s attendance rate had inched up to 69 percent—still 15 points below pre-coronavirus levels, and 11 points below the attendance threshold of 80 percent that the city education department said all schools were expected to meet through the end of the school year.

That missed target shows just how difficult the attendance issue is. The Queens neighborhood where the high school is located was hit particularly hard by the coronavirus this spring, according to data released by the New York City Health Department. All told, the borough accounted for 31 percent of all cases in New York City through June 8.

Those students who fell behind this spring—disproportionately black, Hispanic, and poor—will be expected to catch up over the summer. The education department estimated about 180,000 students to take part in online summer learning—more than three times the roughly 50,000 students who enrolled in summer school last year.

The district does not know exactly which students are expected to participate, however. The Department did not send summer school notices to students for whom it did not have accurate attendance data, according to city education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot.

Aside from academics, educators fear that under full-time remote learning, students may miss out on other critical social benefits schools provide.

“The aspect of this pandemic which is most frustrating is that by its very nature, it prohibits us from engaging socially,” said Kaufman, the computer science teacher. “I can honestly say that the community is somewhat together—they see themselves as QIRT students—and that’s gone, that’s ripped out. It’s hard to replace that.”

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