Taking attendance

Student absences are about to have higher stakes in most states. Will cheating follow?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

Schools across the country are about to be held accountable for student attendance — attaching stakes to a measure that previously had much less significance and increasing the risk that schools will try to manipulate that data.

But it’s unclear how effectively states have prepared for that possibility, or have systems in place to accurately monitor absenteeism data at all.

“It’s human nature, when the stakes rise, to want to game the system,” said Phyllis Jordan of the Georgetown-based think tank FutureEd. She recently wrote an analysis finding that 36 states plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure schools under ESSA, the federal education law. “In that regard, I don’t think chronic absenteeism is any different than other measures, like test scores.”

Of course, one way for schools to improve their chronic absenteeism marks is to add support that helps students to show up to school. That’s exactly how experts and policymakers hope educators will respond, and because states are only using chronic absenteeism as a small portion of the accountability system, the incentives for cheating may not be strong. But past experience with evaluation systems suggests that a small number of schools will resort to unscrupulous means.

“When you’ve got high stakes on something, if there’s a way to corrupt it, some people are going to corrupt it,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an education researcher at Northwestern who wrote a brief highlighting the advantages of using chronic absenteeism to measure schools. “The question is, how big is this incentive? How many schools are going to engage in this bad behavior?”

High stakes could lead to manipulation, but how big of a problem this will be is an open question

A 2003 study in Chicago found evidence of cheating on standardized tests in about 5 percent of elementary classrooms. More subtle gaming has also occured: research found evidence that teachers focused on topics likely to appear on the state test, at the expense of other academic standards.

The potential problem may be more acute when it comes to student absences because of the all-or-nothing way chronic absenteeism is measured.

In most states, a student is deemed chronically absent if they miss 10 percent of school days — around 18 days for those enrolled for a full school year. That means that schools might be especially tempted to mark a student present on the day of their 18th absence. (If student attendance rates are bunched right below the chronic absenteeism bar — say, many more are gone 17 rather than 18 days — that could be evidence of manipulation.)

“We need to use accountability to promote an early warning approach — not just making sure kids are one less day absent,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that promotes efforts to improve school attendance.

Both Jordan and Schanzenbach noted that, because states are generally counting chronic absenteeism for only about 5 to 10 percent of school ratings, the incentives to cheat are likely to be fewer.

“It’s going be an empirical question about how big is the corruption of this — my prediction is it’s going to be reasonably small,” said Schanzenbach.

“This is why we encourage people to keep chronic absence to a relatively low percentage of the overall weighting — if it’s less than 10 percent … it’s not worth investing in trying to game it,” said Chang.

Still, attendance manipulation scandals have cropped up before: A 2016 investigation in Chicago, where student attendance rates are a part of school scores and principal evaluations, found that four high schools had systematically changed attendance records.

Others are concerned about data issues beyond obvious cheating.

“I’m worried about outright manipulation, but I’m also worried about sloppiness of reporting and inconsistencies,” said Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-oriented consulting firm that has undertaken an extensive review of state ESSA plans. Details like how schools count partial-day absences, or what happens when a teacher forgets to take attendance, will take on new importance.

States are taking different approaches

Experts agrees that there should be some protections against manipulation of attendance data. But it’s unclear to what extent states have those safeguards in place.

Chalkbeat reached out to the 10 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism and have had their ESSA plans approved by the federal government. Nine of the state departments of education responded.

A representative for the Massachusetts Department of Education said that because the state can see changes to attendance rates, “any data manipulation would need to be done systematically and could not be done after the fact without raising flags as to why so many post-dated attendance changes were being made.”

Oregon already looks for unusual trends in attendance data, but does not conduct audits of local districts. “However, the accountability office has conducted such audits on other accountability data,” an education official said. “I would anticipate that we might do the same with attendance data submissions, should concerns arise regarding the validity of that data.”

But some states mention checks that might not catch most manipulation.

Illinois, for example, ensures that “a student can’t have more absences recorded than days enrolled in the school.”

A spokesperson from the Tennessee Department of Education noted just one kind of potential irregularity: “If the school said a student was in class all day but got in an accident or committed a crime during that window, the school could be liable.”

Some states said that they are working on this issue, but specifics have not yet been fleshed out.

Delaware “is reviewing current processes around absenteeism and chronic absenteeism.” Maine will be hiring an ESSA data coordinator “who will monitor data integrity,” but “the exact procedure and policy around this is in process of being written,” according to a spokesperson.

In Arizona, “the Department [of Education] is meeting with various stakeholders to determine ways to improve reporting of attendance and absenteeism.”

States that have already been using chronic absenteeism or attendance rates to determine funding may face less of a learning curve.

In its school performance reports, “New Jersey has included chronic absenteeism data for elementary and middle schools for years,” a spokesperson said.

Connecticut, meanwhile, has been “collecting and reporting chronic absenteeism data for many years” and has a number of checks in place, including flagging any school with large increases or decreases in chronic absenteeism, according to a spokesperson.

See all nine states’ full explanations for how they plan to protect against manipulation of absence data. Want more education news? Subscribe to Chalkbeat’s new national newsletter here.

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.