Does your district’s chronic absence rate put you at risk under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? Are you investing a lot of your precious resources trying to lower that rate? Well, it turns out that your district’s chronic absence rate may be inflated due to problems with accounting accuracy.
Chronic absence quantified
Chronic absence is defined as missing 10% or more of enrolled attendance days. In the ESSA plan it submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) published data that were jaw dropping: In the 2016-17 school year, 15.8% of Grade 1 – 8 students and 24.2% of Grade 9 – 12 students in New York State were chronically absent.
Indeed, many of Prism’s clients report district-wide chronic absence rates exceeding 20% — with school building or sub-group rates sometimes exceeding 30% or even 40%.
The NYS Comptroller reports “significant concerns” with chronic absence data
In March 2019, NYSED released a memo alerting districts to issues with chronic absence accounting. The opening statement is full of red flags:
“In a recent audit conducted by the Office of the State Comptroller on the Department’s Oversight of Chronic Absenteeism, auditors noted significant concerns about the accuracy of data submitted to the Student Information Repository System (SIRS) by districts. In particular, the auditors identified instances of improperly coded absences that resulted in inaccurate identification of students as chronically absent. The auditors noted this issue appears to be attributable to ‘mapping’ of local attendance codes to the State Attendance Codes collected in SIRS at the local level.”
The memo goes on to prescribe specific ways to ensure that a district’s student information system (SIS) maps accurately to the state’s codes for absenteeism. While the NYSED sends many memos, this is one a district should probably read carefully and respond to diligently.
Hudson Valley districts challenge NYSED’s chronic absence accounting
Ron Velez is director, management & information systems at the White Plains Public Schools. In the 2018-19 school year, he was part of a consortium of Hudson Valley school districts that challenged the accuracy of NYSED’s chronic absence accounting. Ron explains:
“Many districts in our region were complaining to NYSED and to our regional information center (RIC) that the chronic absenteeism reports were not accurate, because there were no clear rules established regarding what was considered an excused and unexcused absence or how the absent codes should be setup in our SIS.
“A group of about six or seven local districts worked with NYSED, our RIC and our SIS vendors to clarify what absences needed to be included and not included in state reporting. Based on that work, we carefully mapped our local SIS attendance codes to the state’s attendance codes.”
After mapping SIS codes to the state’s, White Plains rate drops from 15.3% to 4.9%
Ron continues: “Our 2017-18 SIRS 107 reported a chronic absence rate of 15.3%. However, after mapping our SIS absence code to the state’s, our 2018-19 SIRS 107 reported a chronic absence rate of just 4.9%.
“We believe the 2018-19 data is more representative of actual chronic absence at the White Plains Public Schools. It appears we may not have had as large a chronic absenteeism problem as the original data suggested. In fact, we now exceed the state’s long-term ESSA goal of 5% chronic absenteeism.”
Ron contacted the other districts who had also completed the SIS mapping to see what the impact was and three responded: Scarsdale reports a 6.8% drop from 2017-18 to 2018-19, while Pelham and Bronxville each report a small year-to-year decrease.
Allocation of precious resources
Any district that is striving to reduce “phantom” chronic absenteeism is unnecessarily consuming time, effort and expense. Based on the comptroller’s report and the findings in the Hudson Valley, this could be the case at dozens and potentially hundreds of school districts.
Clearly, these districts could redirect these precious resources to real issues and opportunities for the betterment of their students and communities.
Note and disclaimer: Each district’s situation is likely different. There is no guarantee that appropriate mapping of local SIS codes to the state’s will lower a district’s chronic absence rate.
Ron Velez, director, management & information systems at the White Plains Public Schools, co-authored this article.