Opinion
Accountability Opinion

Absenteeism Is the Wrong Student Engagement Metric to Use Right Now

After the pandemic, we need a better measure for school accountability
By Sara Johnson, Annette Anderson & Ruth R. Faden — April 09, 2021 4 min read
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Before COVID-19, a concerted effort was underway to expand the use of chronic absenteeism as a measure of school quality and educational equity in the United States. But the hybrid, virtual, and in-person learning contingencies forced by the pandemic have upended the very notion of attendance. To promote educational equity, both now and postpandemic, we need to supplement absence-based school accountability measures with those that capture meaningful participation in learning, regardless of where and when it happens.

During the pandemic, student absences doubled. According to an October 2020 estimate from Bellwether Education Partners, as many as 3 million children had not been consistently engaged in learning since last March. Chronic absenteeism (missing 10 percent or more of school days) is linked to lack of reading proficiency and dropping out of high school. It’s essential to reengage disconnected students in learning, but how do we monitor our progress in a way that acknowledges the myriad challenges that some students face in accessing in-person and virtual school? Changing what we measure could help better identify and support students and their families in reengaging with school.

We’ve already seen that the way we measure school attendance and participation matters. For years, federal guidelines directed states to track truancy; in turn, remedies for truancy were primarily punitive—including prosecuting and even jailing parents whose children did not attend school.

In 2015, spurred by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education began to shift its focus from truancy to chronic absenteeism. This shift has encouraged states to more holistically assess and address the reasons students miss school, including a physical or mental-health issue, housing instability, a competing job, or school bullying. Shifting the focus to reducing chronic absenteeism has also led to the engagement of a wider group of health- and social-service stakeholders to support families in addressing barriers to school attendance.

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic with an eye toward identifying students at highest risk for continued academic disengagement, we need, once again, to assess whether we’re measuring what matters. Our university’s eSchool+ Initiative, in collaboration with the World Bank and UNICEF, has recently launched its Global Education Recovery Tracker. Among the findings of this joint research effort is confirmation that hybrid and remote forms of education continue to be widespread around the world because of COVID-19.
Many students are still learning outside their physical classrooms. As a result, accountability metrics must evolve to capture students’ participation—not just their presence—in school. Accountability measures that focus on access and engagement rather than presence alone can acknowledge what has always been tacit in student-absence data: Not all students have equal access to the resources they need to participate fully in educational experiences and not all students are optimally served.

The pandemic has ushered in a new era of flexibility in how and where student learning occurs.

The pandemic has ushered in a new era of flexibility in how and where student learning occurs. Given this flexibility, how do we measure if students have access to meaningful participation? What metrics will allow us to assess that participation? If we don’t get the measures right—if we aren’t monitoring for the right indicators—our ability to address the educational inequities laid bare by this pandemic will be substantially hampered.

As we rethink the best ways to remediate the impact of the pandemic on school engagement, we should also continue to provide educational services to students without confining them to the classroom. For some older students, virtual school can offer a way to set aside their schoolwork in the middle of the day and participate in paid employment or take care of other household responsibilities. Before the pandemic, those same job and family responsibilities would have led to chronic absenteeism and increased the risk of dropping out.

To continue to offer this flexibility, a new measure of participation might allow students to, for example, produce a portfolio of learning achievements through which they could demonstrate mastery, even if their learning did not occur during typical school hours. Such an approach supports college and career readiness in the 21st-century economy and disrupts some of the key barriers to participation.

The pandemic has forced us to reevaluate the relationship between presence in school buildings and academic success. We must now consider the range of student learning needs—from traditional to alternative and perhaps unorthodox. Whether it’s focusing on competency-based learning goals or new blended learning models in partnership with communities, we must be expansive in our thinking to shepherd all students through this unprecedented education experience. By refocusing school accountability metrics to capture not just barriers to attendance but barriers to meaningful participation in learning, we can reimagine ways to engage those that we have typically called “at risk” to become active agents of their own learning.

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Megan Collins, Beth Marshall, and Alan Regenberg from the eSchool+ Initiative and the Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions at Johns Hopkins University also contributed to the research for this essay.
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as We Need a Better School Accountability MetricThan Absenteeism


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