Taking attendance

As districts across the country try to drive down absenteeism, New York City leads the way

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students participate in a peer mentoring program at Cypress Hills Collegiate Preparatory School.

As Anna Diaz started her sophomore year of high school, simply making it to class each day was an ordeal.

Her home life was sometimes chaotic, her mom was out of work, and she wrestled with depression. On top of that, after a summer of bouncing from hotel to hotel, her family relocated to Queens, lengthening her commute to her Brooklyn high school to nearly two hours. As a result, she rarely made it to first period at Cypress Hills Collegiate Preparatory School, and missed roughly 15 percent of her sophomore year.

“I was going through a lot,” recalled Diaz, now a senior at Cypress Hills. She was hardly alone: That year, 42 percent of her peers were deemed “chronically absent” because they missed at least 10 percent of the school year or about 18 days.

Under pressure to improve attendance, the school has dug deeper into student data, set individual goals for students, reached out to families, and created incentives like trips to museums or theme parks to reward improvement. It’s also tried to make the school more appealing to students — for instance, by establishing a mentorship program that pairs freshmen with older students and working to improve teachers’ lessons — under the theory that students need a reason to show up.

The strategy is paying off: Last school year, 28 percent of students were chronically absent, down from 61 percent in 2014.

“It’s really an overall school approach,” said Principal Amy Yager.

In recent years, New York City’s education department has been paying more attention to chronic absenteeism, which is linked to lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system. Beyond being a serious risk factor for students, officials see chronic absenteeism as a barometer of a school’s ability to create a safe, stimulating space that entices students to attend.

New York City isn’t alone: Roughly three-quarters of states — including New York — plan to include the measure as one of the ways they evaluate schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“If you want achievement every year you have to have attendance almost every day,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that has pushed for a greater emphasis on absenteeism. New York City, she added, was “one of the first [districts] in the nation to realize they had a problem.”

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has made improved attendance a central goal of its two most ambitious — and expensive — school-improvement efforts.

Since 2014, the city education department has transformed over 200 schools into “community schools” designed to remove obstacles that can lead to chronic absenteeism — anything from severe asthma and mental health issues, to a lack of clean clothes. The schools were outfitted with medical and dental services, nutrition and fitness programs, tutoring, job training and — in some cases — washers and dryers.

Among them are 94 low-performing schools (including Cypress Hills) that are also part of de Blasio’s $582 million “Renewal” turnaround program, which provides coordinators to manage a host of new support services and tools to track student-level attendance data.

Officials say that broader school improvement efforts — everything from adding evening classes for parents or sending in teacher coaches — should ultimately boost attendance. But they have also zeroed in on specific strategies for drawing students into school.

Community and Renewal schools use customized software that pulls student attendance data out of creaky city databases, allowing school attendance teams to quickly identify which students are racking up lots of absences. Then team members, including nonprofit staffers brought in by the city, visit the homes of chronically absent students, call their parents, or set up counseling sessions.

At P.S. 61 in the Bronx, school officials have started a “walking school bus” where volunteers meet chronically absent students at neighborhood checkpoints then walk them to school. The effort helps students whose parents have health problems or otherwise struggle to drop them off, said Stacey Campo, P.S. 61’s community school director, and “it’s creating some excitement about coming to school.”

City officials have also experimented with sending home postcards that show how many days a student has missed compared to the school’s average. The simple intervention, which the city tried at 52 schools, helped drive down absenteeism, according to Chris Caruso, the education department’s executive director of community schools.

The percentage of students considered chronically absent at Renewal schools compared to the citywide rate. (Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

Caruso said that because academic measures like test scores take longer to budge, a school’s chronic absenteeism rate gives an early indication of whether turnaround efforts are taking hold.

Though the Renewal program has had mixed success raising test scores and graduation rates, the share of students who are chronically absent at those schools has fallen by just under 8 percentage points since 2015. (Still, the schools’ 36 percent chronic absenteeism rate is significantly higher than the 26 percent citywide rate.)

“This is generally a pretty sticky measure that’s difficult to move,” Caruso said, “and we’re seeing real progress.”

In the past, schools had little sense of how many students were missing many days of class.

As recently as ten years ago, most schools focused on the percentage of students who showed up on a given day — known as average daily attendance — not how many days individual students were missing.

That made it difficult to identify students who were gone a few days each month — an easily overlooked occurrence that can balloon into a major problem. It also left schools with a potentially deceptive statistic: A third of students could be chronically absent, yet a school’s average daily attendance could still be 90 percent.

“The entire attendance system was measuring the wrong thing,” said Kim Nauer, the education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “They had no way of seeing whether any individual kid was missing too much school and putting them at risk.”

In 2008, Nauer published a report that was among the first to reveal the scale of New York City’s chronic absenteeism problem. At the time, over 28 percent of students were chronically absent.

Partly in response to the report, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a series of initiatives to combat absenteeism.

The most effective intervention was pairing chronically absent students with “Success Mentors” — school personnel or volunteers who regularly checked in with students and helped coax them back to school. One study found that students with mentors gained nearly two weeks of school on average and were more likely to remain in school three years later. Today, 115 community schools continue to use that approach, a number city officials said would likely increase to 150 this school year.

Under de Blasio, chronic absenteeism has continued on a gradual downward path that began with Bloomberg. Last school year the rate ticked up slightly to 26 percent, but that is still about 2 percentage points lower than when de Blasio took office.

Still, individual schools often struggle to combat chronic absenteeism, which largely stems from forces beyond their control.

At P.S. 211 in the Bronx, for instance, school staffers repeatedly tried to convince a mother with substance abuse issues that she shouldn’t keep her two children at home to help her with laundry and other chores.

“We would make connections with mom and things would go great for a week,” said Jorge Blau, who helps oversee the attendance program, “and then we’d have to start over again.”

Blau, who works for The Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit embedded in the school, said his team was able to help reduce the number of days the students were absent from about 40 down to 20 or so — an improvement, but still a serious threat to their learning.

“Did they come to school more? Yes,” Blau said. “But we didn’t get them over the hump.”

Gradebooks

Three Chicago principals and the war against Fs

If you’re a principal intent on disruption, here’s one place to start: Ban Fs.

“Fs and Ds are worthless,” Principal Juan Carlos Ocon told a group of rapt educators Thursday. The principal of Benito Juarez Community Academy in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen spoke as part of a panel on improving student performance at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

The event took place during a daylong look at the consortium’s latest round of pivotal research, which draws a clear line from ninth grade performance to high school graduation.

Conferees discussed the latest data showing freshman GPAs in core classes — such as reading, math, and science — dropping a third of a point from their eighth-grade GPAs. One key finding: Failure in non-core classes, like PE, far exceeds similar eighth- grade numbers. But researchers didn’t uncover why as many Chicago freshmen fail PE as science. (Read more here.)

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Sarah Duncan, left, of the Network for College Success, moderates a panel on grades at a conference Oct. 11, on findings of the To & Through Project. Also appearing on the panel at the University of Chicago are Juan Carlos Ocon, Chad Adams, and Wayne Bevis.

Joined on the panel by fellow principals Chad Adams of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park on the North Side and Wayne Bevis of Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a test-in school in West Englewood, Ocon said he took a hard position to “ban Fs from kids’ lives.”

“It actually increases rigor,” he said, explaining how the mindset of his school has shifted from punitive deadlines to encouraging learning at a student’s pace. Any high schooler who isn’t proficient in a subject by June must keep going to class until the light bulb glows, Ocon said. “Our classes do not end in June when classes end in traditional high schools — our classes extend through second week of August.”

Panelists Adams and Bevis are also “blowing up” the idea of Fs. At Adams’ school, located in an immigrant-rich neighborhood and inside which 40 some languages are spoken, Fs aren’t quite verboten — but, every five weeks, teachers have to come clean with how many Fs they give.

“Teachers didn’t like it as first, but then they started to hold each other accountable,” Adams said. I have the same kids (as you do) in your class, but, look, I gave 4 Fs versus your 54. What are you doing?”

Bevis has done away with As through Fs entirely and moved to a numeric grading system that runs 1 to 4. He’s also implemented a buildingwide revision policy, which can be controversial at some schools. After receiving a grade, students have at least two weeks to resubmit revised work and show they have improved their skills. “Some teachers go longer than two weeks, up to a semester,” he said.

Though located in very different areas of the city, each school has seen significant gains in student performance, with consistent, year-over-year rises in graduation rates and “freshman on track” percentages — that is, the percentage of freshmen who are on track to graduate as measured at the end of ninth grade, a metric developed by the University of Chicago and a key measure of success in Chicago.

The principals used the panel session to share other practices they see improving performance in their schools.

At Lindblom, for example, a revolving weekly “colloquium class” offers students extra help in a particular subject. Students must submit requests by Monday night, and with input from teachers a computer spits out their assigned special class, which can change week-to-week. “There’s a consistent understanding among teachers and students that we need to target which skills they struggle with,” Bevis said.

At Juarez, teachers spent the past year studying and recommending a set of core developmental competencies, a list that includes perseverance and relationship skills. Daily lessons are built in during an advisory period, and the staff is on board since they helped create them, Ocon said.

Adams echoed the idea of building a high-performance culture starting with his teacher corps. He’s likewise building a set of core values to express what a Sullivan High School graduate represents. When it comes to creating a learning culture, staff buy-in is essential, he said. When it comes to change, “if the teachers aren’t ready, the kids won’t be ready.”

 

held back

Holding middle-schoolers back causes dropout rates to spike, new research finds

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
A student opens his locker between classes at Overland Trail Middle School on August 17, 2017, in Brighton, Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.

“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.

The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.

Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.

“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.

“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.

Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.

The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.

Here’s what else the new research tells us.

Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.

The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.

In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.

The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.

There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)

In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.

The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.

There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.

In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.

Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.

Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.

What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.

The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.

In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.

Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.

There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.

“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”

The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.

White students are more likely to avoid being held back.

The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.

For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.

Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.

In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.

Where does this new long-term research leave us?

Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.

But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.

It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.

Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.

“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.