It’s hard to see the chalkboard from the back of the class. When you’re not even in the room, it’s impossible. For too many students, chronic absenteeism—missing 15 days of school per year or more—is the norm. Not being in school makes it pretty hard to learn. And yet, in Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)’s Annual Performance Report (APR) system, schools with high rates of absenteeism often receive high or even perfect 10 out of 10 scores for the attendance component. How does this happen?
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, in 2015–16 Missouri had 42 schools in which more than one-third of students were chronically absent. But a look at their APR scores would leave you thinking that attendance is fine. Only 11 of these schools received fewer than half of the 10 possible attendance points, and fourteen received 7.5 points or more. In one of the most egregious cases, Kansas City’s Central Middle School was accredited with 7.5 of its 10 attendance points, even though 54 percent of its student body was chronically absent.
Similarly, there were seven school districts in which 25 percent or more of the students were chronically absent, according to the federal government—and not one of these districts received fewer than 60 percent of their attendance points. Even Kansas City, where nearly 40 percent of students were chronically absent, received six out of ten possible APR attendance points.
Why is the rating system so generous with attendance points? Simply put, because there are actually 17.5 points available for a score that is based on a 10-point scale. Here’s how it works:
Two factors contribute to the attendance ratings. “Status” is based upon the percentage of students who attend at least 90 percent of school days, and “progress,” is the percentage change in this figure from the previous two-year average. Ten points are available for status and 7.5 additional points are available for progress, as shown in the table below. So, schools and districts only need to get just over half of the points to get the maximum score. For example, Kansas City’s Sunshine Elementary—where 39 percent of students are chronically absent—received 7.5 status points and 4.0 for progress, earning a perfect 10 out of 10 points.
DESE’s flawed attendance formula sets a low bar for public schools and obscures Missouri’s problem with chronic absenteeism. Granting APR points for attendance in the first place is questionable, as it lessens the weight of academic performance in the overall evaluation—a topic I’ll explore more in a future blog post. But if attendance is to be included in the APR formula, it should be measured in a way that alerts the public when absenteeism becomes a problem at a school.