Chapter 4: School Attendance Records - Key to Prevention and Intervention Efforts in California

As illustrated in the previous sections, truancy and chronic absenteeism have reached epidemic proportions in California. However, our ability to examine these problems carefully and design thoughtful and effective strategies to solve them is hampered by the lack of statewide reporting of student attendance records.

Measures of Attendance and Key Terminology

California does not currently require school districts to report student-level attendance records to the state. Rather, California tracks only two measures of attendance statewide:

  1. Truancy rates: the percent of students with three unexcused absences or three tardies of more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse, or any combination of at least three tardies and absences
  2. ADA: the percent of students at school on a given day

School attendance records are an essential foundation for efforts to reduce truancy and chronic absence in California and across the United States. This evidence "is critical to making instructional and programmatic choices targeting student attendance behaviors… and can guide the design of interventions intended to improve attendance and student achievement.”100National Forum on Education Statistics. (2009).Every School Day Counts: The Forum Guide to Collecting and Using Attendance Data (NFES 2009–804). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 8. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/attendancedata/.

These records on attendance, that is, records that track individual students, allows teachers and school administrators to identify students at risk of academic failure or of dropping out of school. Despite the vital role of this empirical evidence in understanding and addressing truancy and chronic absence, the systematic collection and use of school attendance records in California is still a fledgling work-in-progress.

Moreover, these two measures (truancy and ADA rates) are incomplete; they mask the scope and severity of habitual and chronic truancy, as well as chronic absence, in California public schools.

California is one of only four other states in the United States that fails to track individual attendance records in its longitudinal tracking system.101Chang, Leong, Fothergill, & Dizon Ross (2013) How States Can Advance Achievement by Reducing Chronic Absence, Attendance Works, Policy Paper. (http://www.attendanceworks.org/policy-advocacy/state/state-policy-brief-the-attendance-imperative/). The other three states are Colorado, New York, and Illinois. Ibid.

Truancy Rate Can Mask Truancy and Chronic Absence Problems

Though California’s education records system does not currently track attendance, the state does track information on the number of students classified as “truant” in all California schools. In accordance with the requirements of No Child Left Behind,102Public Law PL 107-110, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. truancy rates are collected by school districts and then entered into the state’s systems, California’s Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS).103For more information on CBEDS see http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/dc/cb/. In addition, information on California’s truancy rates is publicly available through DataQuest (http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/). For definitions of these terms, see Appendix A. This requirement acknowledges that these truancy rates provide a key early warning sign when students miss school without a valid excuse. However, the state’s tracking system captures only the first truancy offense. The system does not capture records for students who are habitually or chronically truant.104For definitions of these terms, see Appendix A.

Moreover, the truancy rate, by definition, tracks only unexcused absences. The truancy rate thus does not capture when students miss numerous days of school, including for excused absences, even when a student is chronically absent. “Especially, in the early grades, truancy doesn’t capture what is going on since they [students] are often home with an adult who may call in to say they won’t be attending school that day.”105Chang, Reporting on Chronic Absence in Your Community. Attendance Counts. http://www.attendancecounts.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Reporting-on-Chronic-Absence-in-Your-Community-HC-comments.doc. The truancy rate therefore cannot give us the full picture about how many students have more severe problems with attendance.

Average Daily Attendance (ADA) Can Mask Truancy and Chronic Absence Problems

As with truancy rates, information the state collects on ADA also fail to tell the complete story about truancy and chronic absence in California’s public elementary schools.

Schools generally focus on average daily attendance (ADA) figures and mistakenly assume that 95 percent ADA is an indicator of good attendance. This is not necessarily the case. For example, even in a school of 200 students with 95 percent average daily attendance, 30 percent (or 60) of the students could be missing nearly a month of school (i.e., chronically absent) over the course of the school year. It all depends whether absences are due to most students missing a few days or excessive absences among a small but still significant minority of students.” Brunner, Discher, and Chang, Attendance Works and Child and Policy Center106Bruner, Discher, & Chang (2011). Chronic Elementary Absenteeism: A Problem in Plain Sight. A Research Brief from Attendance Works and Child and Policy Center, 2. Retrieved from http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/ChronicAbsence.pdf.

Therefore, ADA records—because it is based on average attendance at a school—do not provide information on the range and variation in attendance rates for individual students. As discussed in Chapter 1 , ADA is important for school funding and a school’s focus on improving attendance can yield significant increases in funding through better ADA. However, as currently collected, ADA alone does not provide educators and policymakers with the information they need to fully understand the attendance challenge in our schools and to select effective prevention and intervention strategies.

Moreover, while many school districts track individualized student attendance records at the district level, few track student-level records longitudinally (i.e., year after year). As a result, long-term trends in school attendance in California remain largely unmonitored.

In response to our District Leadership Survey, only 14 of the 50 districts that responded were able to report chronic absence rates for the past three years. Of those 14 districts, only six were able to report chronic absence rates for the past five years.

Only half of survey respondents confirmed that their school district has the capability to track student-level absence records longitudinally. This lack of records poses a significant challenge to identifying students with a pattern of poor school attendance, and to designing prevention and intervention programs to target individuals and groups of at-risk students, such as English learners, foster children and free and reduced price lunch/low-income students. Moreover, because the survey was voluntary, one would expect respondents to be more advanced than the average district in terms of their attendance intervention strategies.

California public elementary school districts have little information about the long-term attendance patterns of their students – and we have even less information on a statewide basis.

Efforts have been made by state policymakers and advocacy groups to improve the availability of attendance records in California. For example, Senate Bill (SB) 1357, signed into law in September 2010, requires the state to collect records on student absence rates – although without distinguishing between excused and unexcused absences – at the district, school, class and student-level, including rates of chronic absence. This information is to be collected through CALPADS, the state’s student-level education system, contingent on the availability of federal funds.107Education Code section 60901. To date, federal funds have not been available for this purpose.

District-Level Records Collection for Accountability

Some districts and state policymakers have suggested that attendance records, including both excused and unexcused absences, should be added as an accountability measure for schools – along with graduation rates and other school performance measures beyond California Standardized Test scores. In recognition of the importance of attendance to school health and progress, a group of eight California school districts has recently been approved for an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver. This waiver allows the group, the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), to use absenteeism as one of their accountability measures.108According to a report from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at John Hopkins University, one state, Georgia, already “includes chronic absence data in its assessment of average yearly progress (AYP) required under No Child Left Behind” (See Balfanz & Brynes, 2012). That same report discovered that a few states – Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island – track chronic absence, but the definition of chronic absence varies across these states.

Moreover, the new LCFF requires that districts create their own LCAPs to ensure that LCFF funds are allocated to meet the needs of students based on state priorities. These priorities, released in July 2013, include school attendance and chronic absence as outcome measures of student engagement. Districts have discretion to decide what strategies they use to meet the state’s priorities, which they will outline in their LCAPs. The State Board of Education will release a required template for LCAPs by March 31, 2014.

Good Record-Keeping is Just the First Step

Record-keeping is a necessary starting point for efforts to improve school attendance and an essential tool to identify students who need help. But good records alone are not enough to address the attendance challenge in California.

…You will not reduce dropout rates by [identifying] the students; it’s what you do with them. Early-warning systems are not an intervention strategy; they are part of an intervention strategy. Thomas “Chris” C. West, a Montgomery County, MD Evaluation Specialist who built an early warning tracking system that attempts to predict future dropouts, stated in a July 2013 EdWeek article.109Sparks (July 29, 2013) Dropout Indicators for 1st Graders, Education Week, Vol. 32, Issue 37. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/07/29/37firstgrade.h32.html?tkn=MLXFm%2FUb9fyfyJtF4%2FWvxbdNwMBp%2BoHth7%2BK&cmp=clp-edweek.

Although tracking attendance records is a critical starting point for addressing truancy and chronic absence, it is not an intervention on its own. The greatest promise lies in the way in which records are used to help connect students and their families with the resources needed in order to improve school attendance.110For a full reporting on how school districts are using attendance records to inform intervention strategies, see Chapter 7.

For information on best practices for how districts can use attendance records, see Chapter 7.

For information about policy recommendations related to local and state record-keeping, see Chapter 9.

  1.    National Forum on Education Statistics. (2009).Every School Day Counts: The Forum Guide to Collecting and Using Attendance Data (NFES 2009–804). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 8. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/attendancedata/.
  2.    Chang, Leong, Fothergill, & Dizon Ross (2013) How States Can Advance Achievement by Reducing Chronic Absence, Attendance Works, Policy Paper. (http://www.attendanceworks.org/policy-advocacy/state/state-policy-brief-the-attendance-imperative/). The other three states are Colorado, New York, and Illinois. Ibid.
  3.    Public Law PL 107-110, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
  4.    For more information on CBEDS see http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/dc/cb/. In addition, information on California’s truancy rates is publicly available through DataQuest (http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/). For definitions of these terms, see Appendix A.
  5.    For definitions of these terms, see Appendix A.
  6.    Chang, Reporting on Chronic Absence in Your Community. Attendance Counts. http://www.attendancecounts.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Reporting-on-Chronic-Absence-in-Your-Community-HC-comments.doc.
  7.    Bruner, Discher, & Chang (2011). Chronic Elementary Absenteeism: A Problem in Plain Sight. A Research Brief from Attendance Works and Child and Policy Center, 2. Retrieved from http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/ChronicAbsence.pdf.
  8.    Education Code section 60901.
  9.    According to a report from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at John Hopkins University, one state, Georgia, already “includes chronic absence data in its assessment of average yearly progress (AYP) required under No Child Left Behind” (See Balfanz & Brynes, 2012). That same report discovered that a few states – Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island – track chronic absence, but the definition of chronic absence varies across these states.
  10.    Sparks (July 29, 2013) Dropout Indicators for 1st Graders, Education Week, Vol. 32, Issue 37. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/07/29/37firstgrade.h32.html?tkn=MLXFm%2FUb9fyfyJtF4%2FWvxbdNwMBp%2BoHth7%2BK&cmp=clp-edweek.
  11.    For a full reporting on how school districts are using attendance records to inform intervention strategies, see Chapter 7.