On February 2, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) released the first draft of its state plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA, the year-old federal education law, is the successor to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While many of ESSA’s accountability provisions are similar to those found in NCLB, a new requirement is for states to have an indicator of “school quality or student success” that goes beyond state standardized test scores or graduation rates.
Ohio’s plan proposes two measures that meet this requirement. The first measure, Prepared for Success, is a carryover from the state’s current report card. It uses multiple indicators to determine the number of students ready for college or career at the end of high school, and is exclusively used for districts and high schools. The second measure, on the other hand, will be used by all schools and districts: student engagement as measured by chronic absenteeism.
Although the threshold for being considered chronically absent depends on the state, the idea behind the term is the same—chronic absentees are students who miss too much school. In Ohio, these students are known as “habitual truants.” They earn this designation by being absent without “legitimate excuse” for “thirty or more consecutive hours, forty-two or more hours in one school month, or seventy-two or more hours in a school year.” Serving these students well has been a struggle for districts and schools in the Buckeye State for years, so it makes sense that the state would use ESSA as an opportunity to address the problem. Putting chronic absenteeism under the umbrella of student engagement makes sense too: If a student misses too much school, they’re not fully engaged in their education—and probably not learning much either.
But chronic absenteeism is a smart addition to Ohio’s state report card for a number of other reasons as well. First, it’s consistent with and supportive of a policy direction already identified by Ohio leaders. The Buckeye State recently revised its truancy laws in House Bill 410. This legislation updates the state’s definition of truancy and prohibits schools from suspending, expelling, or removing students from school solely on the basis of attendance. Instead, the bill outlines an intervention structure for districts and schools to follow that should “vary based on the needs of each individual student.” While unintentional, this structure aligns well with ESSA’s emphasis on locally driven interventions.
Second, Ohio’s new truancy law also revises what schools and districts must report to ODE in regards to chronic absenteeism based on the law’s new definition and intervention structure. Aligning the new measure with data that the state was already planning to start collecting is smart and efficient. It’s also a measure that can be easily disaggregated by subgroup, school, and district, making it potentially more useful.
Finally, and most importantly, reducing chronic absenteeism can increase achievement. In elementary school, truancy can contribute to weaker math and reading skills that persist into later grades. In high school, where chronic absenteeism rates are higher, students often experience future problems with employment, including lower-status occupations, less stable career patterns, higher unemployment rates, and low earnings. Ohio could raise student achievement by lowering its chronic absenteeism rate, and making absenteeism part of the state’s accountability system is a signal that districts and schools must start paying more attention to attendance numbers.
ODE has proposed a statewide long-term goal for chronic absenteeism of 5 percent or less. Recognizing that some groups of students were starting off with much larger absenteeism rates than others, ODE also assigned goals to each subgroup using the 2015-16 school year as a baseline. Furthermore, it devised a transparent equation that results in “consistent annual increases” of expectations. Here’s a look at the goals for the state as a whole and for various subgroups of students.
In order to successfully meet the student engagement indicator, districts and schools will either have to meet the benchmark percentage of 5 percent or less or meet an improvement standard determined by ODE. (For example, the department lists “reducing the percent of chronically absent students by at least 3 percentage points from one year to the next.”) If districts and schools accomplish either of these goals, they will be deemed meeting the indicator. It’s important to note that this indicator is graded based on a “meets” or “not meets” standard, not with an A-F grade. ODE plans to incorporate this student engagement/chronic absenteeism measure into the Indicators Met portion of the state report card’s Achievement Component. It will be one of many subcomponents within the measure and will likely play a very small role in the overall calculation of school grades.
Nevertheless, this measure could unintentionally create an incentive for districts or schools to expel truant students in order to improve their attendance numbers. Recognizing this, ODE proposes that data on expulsions be used as a “check.” The plan notes: “To ensure that districts do not expel truant students as a way to reduce their chronic absenteeism rate, the calculation will include a review of each school’s or district’s expulsion data. Districts or schools that otherwise would meet the indicator but show a significant increase in their expulsion rate with the discipline reason listed as ‘truancy’ will have their ‘met’ demoted to ‘not met’ for this indicator.”
Overall, ODE’s plan for incorporating chronic absenteeism into the state’s accountability system is both thoughtful and nuanced. The state plan reinforces the newly revised state law while also following ESSA guidelines—and shedding light on a problem that, if solved, could improve student achievement in the Buckeye State.