Hedy Chang: Monitoring Chronic Absence To Reduce Educational Inequities during COVID-19
A Call to Action for Michigan
Michigan students have experienced an unprecedented disruption in access to learning due to the COVID-19 crisis, which may have a devastating impact on student achievement and progress. In addition, a pre-COVID attendance crisis has serious implications that could further hamper Michigan’s recovery.
A recent report by my organization, Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center, found that Michigan had the 8th highest levels of chronic absence in the country — even before the pandemic. Using Chronic Absence to Map Interrupted Schooling, Instructional Loss and Educational Inequity found that nearly a fourth (22.3 %) of Michigan’s students were chronically absent, defined as missing 10% or more of school.
Chronic absenteeism is a leading indicator and contributor to educational inequity. For instance, it serves as a predictor for students being less likely to read by third grade and more likely to drop out of high school.
Chronic absence rates prior to the pandemic also may serve as an indicator for which schools and students are likely to face the greatest impacts of the economic, health and social challenges of COVID-19. A high percentage of Michigan’s chronically absent students — about half — are concentrated in about a fourth of the schools in Michigan that have extreme levels of chronic absence, affecting 30% of students. Chronic absence levels also were highest in schools where most students are living in poverty.
When chronic absence affects large numbers of students, it is typically a sign of systemic failures that prevent students from getting to school. This includes unreliable transportation, poor health and housing displacement, or practices that push students out of school settings including biased disciplinary policies and a lack of teachers who reflect cultures, ethnicities and languages of the student population.
As the challenges related to COVID-19 continue, monitoring attendance and chronic absence is even more urgent since such data can help districts, schools and communities determine which schools and populations need more engagement and support. Unfortunately, the shift to distance and blended learning in Michigan has dramatically impaired the ability to secure quality, reliable attendance data. Although attendance taking was required on a daily basis prior to COVID-19, that is not the case today. Our report analyzing attendance policies across the nation during the pandemic shows that Michigan is among a minority of states that have yet to reinstate daily attendance and only requires districts to make sure an adult interacts with the student twice a week if learning is remote.
How often attendance is taken and what is allowed to count for attendance is also determined locally. It could be a brief text or call, logging on to a learning management system, participating in a virtual class or submitting a homework packet. The lack of frequent and consistent data collection leaves the state without invaluable information for real-time problem solving.
The good news is that Michigan can take steps to change this situation, especially as the state and districts prepare for the 2021-22 school year. They can:
- Promote tracking daily attendance for all students: Districts, with support from the state, can adopt taking attendance daily and adopt a common definition of what constitutes a day of attendance during the 2021-22 school year.
- Monitor Chronic Absence: Continue to monitor and publish data on how many students are missing 10% of school for any reason across all educational settings. Share data broken down by school, grade, race/ethnicity, income, home language, disability and zip code.
- Invest in data systems: Invest in technology to ensure the availability of meaningful and actionable attendance and participation metrics that can be collected without undue burden to educators and by leveraging existing online platforms.
- Leverage data to inform action and resource allocation. The state can support data hubs that make it easy for schools and districts to see how many and which students are missing 10% of school, and use that information, along with other key metrics (i.e., availability of working contact information for families, connectivity, participation and presence of relationships) to understand key barriers to getting to school and determine where additional supports are needed most. Hubs could also allow districts to see if a missing student has been enrolled elsewhere. Data should be shared across departments and agencies to promote collaborative action.
- Build capacity to collect, analyze and use data on attendance and absenteeism. Create opportunities for schools, districts and their partners (public agencies, community based organizations, etc.) to participate in communities of practice where they share strategies for addressing the needs of students and consider its implications for leveraging or expanding access to resources including extended and expanded learning time, transportation, school health services, etc.
- Refrain from high stakes accountability: Refrain from using chronic absence as an accountability measure for school improvement until more is known about what are realistic expectations for reducing absences during remote or hybrid learning.
- Ensure adequate and equitable funding: Enrollment and attendance during the pandemic has suffered, especially in districts that serve the populations of students facing the most barriers. Policies are needed to avoid funding cliffs and ensure resources are adequate and equitable to meet the needs of historically underserved students in particular.
Hedy N. Chang is the founder and Executive Director of Attendance Works, a national initiative that focuses on advancing student success and closing equity gaps by reducing chronic absence.