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.

color blind

The feds are discouraging districts from using race to integrate schools. A new study points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Trump administration recently made waves by removing Obama-era guidance that offered ways for school districts to consider students’ race in order to diversify and integrate schools. The rollback could have harmful consequences for students, according to a new study.

The paper offers a test case of the rule, and it suggests that move — at least if it affects any districts’ policies — could hurt academic outcomes, including college enrollment, by making racial segregation worse, although the study only focuses on a single district.

“There’s a general sense that student outcomes are going down in these schools that are more racially segregated from these race-neutral admissions,” said Jason Cook, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study.

The paper, which has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on an anonymous urban school district that, after a federal investigation in the early 2000s, was forced to end race-conscious admissions to its coveted magnet middle schools. To maintain some diversity in its student body, the district ran separate lotteries for black and non-black (largely white) students. After the federal mandate, though, the district put all students in one lottery, and in turn the schools became notably more segregated — rising from about 77 percent to 85 percent black.

After the policy from 2003 to 2007, the research finds that the spike in segregation corresponded to a decrease in college enrollment for black students by a couple percentage points. There was also an indication of modest declines in test scores in sixth grade and in high school graduation rates, though these results weren’t statistically significant for black students. There was no clear impact on 10th-grade test scores.

These effects aren’t huge, but neither was the increase in segregation, and the results generally point in a negative direction.

Separately, the paper shows that in general magnet schools in that district were less effective when they were made up of predominantly black students, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of struggling students and recruit lower-quality teachers.

The paper also shows that as schools became more predominantly black, more of their white students left, creating a vicious cycle that intensified segregation. “Racial segregation is self-perpetuating,” concludes Cook.

The district in question did not attempt to use race-neutral measures, like poverty status, to promote integration. Research, though, has shown that such approaches are less effective for achieving racial integration than considering race directly.

There is one particularly important caveat to the results, though: The policy change meant that more black students had access to in-demand, high-performing magnet schools. That is, in changing the lottery to stop what amounted to preferences for non-black students, the shift increased segregation but it also meant that a small number of black students had access to top schools they otherwise might not have.

That remains a key point of contention in other cities debating integration. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, a longstanding court decision has prioritized the creation of integrated magnets — done in part by giving white students from the suburbs preference in admissions to magnet schools in the city. After a local newspaper series looked into this practice, critics said the system was effectively shutting out local students from the best schools; supporters contended that the rules are necessary to prevent resegregation of those schools.

The latest study can’t answer knotty philosophical questions about how to divvy up seats in coveted schools, but it does suggest each side has a point — admissions rules do, by definition, keep some kids out, but removing those rules can lead to unintended consequences, including making those schools less effective.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has studied school segregation and is writing a book on the topic, pointed out that the latest study has limits. “That particular paper is focused on one specific district, so even if it’s done really well, you still would want to consider whether [it applies in] other districts,” he said.

But Johnson said the findings are largely consistent with past research including his own, which focused on school desegregation efforts in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “For African-Americans we saw significant impacts,” he said. “High school graduation rates increased, college attendance and college completion rates increased, the type of colleges they attended were more selective, …[there were] increases in earnings, reductions in annual incidence of poverty.”

More recent research has shown that the resegregation of districts led to dips in high school graduation rates among black and Hispanic students. A school integration program on the San Francisco Peninsula caused jumps in test scores and college enrollment (though also arrest rates for non-violent crimes).

In recent decades, as court-mandated integration orders have ended, race-based segregation has gotten worse or held steady, depending on how it’s measured; income-based stratification has consistently worsened. The recent move by the Trump administration is not legally binding, and only a small number of districts have voluntary race-conscious integration policies in place.

Johnson, for his part, fears that defeatism has overtaken the urgency to integrate schools. Some people, Johnson said, have the mindset that “we can’t socially engineer integration.”

“The reality is we did socially engineer segregation,” he said. “It would be natural to understand that we might have to re-engineer that through some intentional policy.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.