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.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.