Calling all MA Administrators: Attendance Coding Dilemma

This post may only appeal to the fellow administrators out there.  I’ll say that straight off the bat.

Let me start by explaining the context of the dilemma.  Schools in Massachusetts have to report attendance data to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education via electronic uploads at various times throughout the school year.  The Department has recently implemented a new accountability system that is outlined here.   The purpose of the new accountability system is to “provide clear, actionable information to families, community members, and the public about district and school performance.”  One of the multiple indicators that the department uses to calculate an overall score for each school is Chronic Absenteeism.  Chronic Absenteeism is defined as the “percentage of students missing 10 percent or more of the days they were enrolled at a given school during a school year.”  If you would like to find an explanation of all the indicators and/or an overview of the whole accountability system, please visit this page and download the documents entitled “system-1pager-indicators” and the “school-leaders-guide.”

The dilemma arises as most high school administrators will tell you is that it not unusual for a significant portion of your student body to be absent for at least 18 days a year.  The state counts all absences the same, whereas school policy usually distinguishes between “excused” and “unexcused.”  Most high schools in Massachusetts have policies that limit the number of unexcused absences and penalize students for exceeding that limit.  So while we do create policies to penalize excessive “unexcused” absences, we generally do not impose limits on “excused” absences.  We use policy to clearly define what constitutes an excused absence and how to get the absence excused. We often consider some school-related absences like college visits or school field trips as “excused absences.”  In addition, when students have long-term medical absences or hospitalizations, we often provide access to the curriculum and tutors to help students make progress, and we code these as “excused absences.”

Under this new accountability system the question for school leaders is:  How can we tighten up our school-based attendance codes to limit the number excused absences?

One approach to this question is to figure out how DESE defines attendance.  In document entitled “DESE Attendance and Dropout Reporting Guidance”, which you will find here, attendance is defined as “a student must be at school, at a school related activity (e.g. field trip), or receiving academic instruction for at least half the school day to be counted as present.”  In addition, this document tells us that “students who are receiving academic instruction from the district for at least half the school day should be counted as present.”

Earlier this month, I sent an email to all secondary school administrators who are members of the MSAA asking them how the code absences when a student is hospitalized or absent and receiving tutoring.  Many schools responded and expressed interest in hearing the results of my little informal study, which is why I’m writing this post now.  I’ve created a google sheet of all the schools that responded to my request.  Please feel free to consult members of this community if you have question or ideas on how to approach this attendance coding dilemma.  There a few schools out there who already code hospitalization/medical long-term absence with tutoring as “present” or “present excused” as well as those who code “Field Trip” and “College Visit” as “present: school business.”

Please let me know if you find this information helpful.

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