showing up

Colorado schools soon will be judged by a new measure: How many students are chronically absent

The mother was anxious when she arrived at Monte Vista Elementary School in southern Colorado to discuss her 7-year-old daughter’s absences and frequent late arrivals.

But there were no reprimands that day in the school library. Instead, during a meeting led by an outside facilitator, a school staff member started by saying, “Hey, we really love it when your daughter is here. She’s so full of energy and excitement.”

Soon, the mother was opening up about the problems that made it tough to get her child to school on time, or at all — her work demands, her boyfriend’s unreliable car and her fears about sending her young daughter alone on the half-mile walk to the bus stop on frigid winter days.

The mother left with a sense of relief and the beginnings of a carpool plan that would enlist neighboring families to drive the little girl to the bus stop on days her family couldn’t.

That meeting a few years ago was part of a four-year effort by the Monte Vista school district and a local nonprofit group to combat chronic absenteeism among students. It’s also the kind of program that more school districts around Colorado may adopt or expand with the state’s recent decision to use chronic absenteeism as one measure in its accountability system.

Chronic absences — when kids miss school 10 percent or more of the time — increases the likelihood kids won’t read well by the end of third grade, will be held back in later grades and will drop out of high school.

Colorado is one of more than a dozen states that will use chronic absenteeism as a measure of school and district quality in the education plans they’ll soon submit to the federal government. More specifically, Colorado will look at whether schools and districts are reducing chronic absenteeism among elementary- and middle-schoolers. At the high school level, the state will look at dropout rates.

Under the federal education law passed in 2015, states were no longer confined to academic measures such as test scores and graduation rates in their accountability systems. Instead, they could choose a non-academic measure, too. Commonly referred to as the “fifth indicator,” it won’t count as much as the four academic indicators, but advocates see it as a chance to take a more holistic view of school success.

Under Colorado’s accountability system, consistently poor-performing schools can face state intervention and consistently poor-performing districts can face the loss of accreditation.

Sue Fothergill, associate director of policy at the national initiative Attendance Works, said she’s heartened to see so many states include chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans.

She said reducing chronic absenteeism rates can be a daunting challenge, but making it a priority in the plans could push districts to shift resources to such efforts and galvanize community leaders to get involved.

Change possible

In Colorado, chronic absenteeism will be used for a year in the state’s plan and then may be replaced.

Dan Jorgensen, accountability support manager for the state education department, said chronic absenteeism could be retained as one component of the fifth indicator, but it will be up to a committee of education leaders to decide.

Lisa Escarcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives and a member of the committee that developed the state plan, said chronic absenteeism works well in the short term because the state already collects such data from school districts and it’s a serviceable proxy for school climate.

Still, she said members of the workgroup that considered the options had initially envisioned something a little different.

“I think they imagined having a fifth indicator that was broader in scope and reflected more the kinds of things around climate and culture of schools…a little bit more of a qualitative type of indicator,” she said.

Luke Yoder, executive director of the Alamosa-based Center for Restorative Programs, which works with local school districts to address chronic absenteeism, said including the indicator in the state accountability plan “on many levels … makes a ton of sense.”

Still, he worried it could cause some districts to fudge the numbers — sometimes an unintended consequence of new mandates.

Root of the problem

Rates of chronic absenteeism are all over the map in Colorado school districts.

In Douglas County, the rate is just 4 percent. It’s more than 30 percent in Pueblo 60 and Adams 14, according to 2013-14 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. (The state began collecting chronic absenteeism rates from school districts last spring, but those numbers haven’t been released publicly yet.)

Then there are tiny rural districts, such as Centennial in the San Luis Valley, where 47 percent of students are chronically absent.

But a grant-funded initiative begun this year in partnership with the Center for Restorative Programs could help the 215-student district bring down those numbers. It’s similar to the effort in the Monte Vista school district that led to the parent meeting in the elementary school library.

The idea is to intervene with families early on — usually after a student has just three absences — using a friendly, problem-solving approach.

“It’s an opportunity to start a conversation that’s much more of a bridge-building conversation instead of a scolding,” said Yoder, who led the meeting with the mother of the 7-year-old girl.

There are lots of reasons that student absences pile up and many have to do with poverty, including a lack of stable housing or reliable transportation. Parents may also have work shifts that conflict with school start times or lean on older children to stay home with younger siblings if the usual caregiver is sick or busy.

As kids get older, they may miss school because of academic, social or mental health problems, or because they’ve taken on jobs to help their families. Some kids also miss school because they’ve been suspended or expelled.

Advocates like Yoder say absenteeism is a complex problem that requires a non-punitive approach from schools.

“Too many of our school districts fall into the trap of waiting until it’s a real a problem and (they) file in court and drop the hammer on these families,” he said, referring to the truancy court system.

The gentler approach his organization has helped institute in Monte Vista, and is now working toward in Centennial, gets results, he said.

Since the effort started in Monte Vista, the proportion of students with 10 or more absences has dropped from 44 percent to 28 percent and the proportion of students with 20 or more absences has dropped from 17 percent to 6 percent.

Money troubles

While many Colorado districts say the issue of chronic absenteeism is on their radar, they note stagnating state funding has hurt efforts to address the issue.

Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for Greeley district, said there used to be school-based attendance liaisons whose job was to help monitor students who missed lots of school. But those positions were cut three years ago. Now, there are just two attendance liaisons for the 22,000-student district, so much of the burden has fallen back onto teachers and principals.

Chronic absenteeism was 19 percent in Greeley in 2013-14, according to the Office of Civil Rights data.

“It is a resource issue for us,” Myers said.

Escarcega, who until last year was a top administrator in Aurora Public Schools, said her former district used to have a major truancy initiative in place, but it’s been scaled back dramatically over the years because of budget cuts.

“It starts to become a game of tradeoffs,” she said. “The funding isn’t going to increase just because we said you have to do chronic absenteeism.”

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.