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Redefining school accountability in Minnesota: It’s more than test scores and graduation rates

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
By being more intentional in how schools use attendance records, educators can offer targeted support for students at risk of falling behind or dropping out altogether.

Assuming the U.S. Department of Education isn’t eliminated after the election — a proposal touted by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — states will be making some important decisions in the coming months as they finalize their new accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the revamped federal education law commonly known as ESSA.

In addition to the hallmark school accountability data sets — proficiency in reading and math, along with high school graduation rates — states must now track academic growth and English-language proficiency, plus at least one other indicator of school quality or student success.

In Minnesota, schools already report on academic growth in reading and math. This measure was added when the state applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the precursor to ESSA, to customize its own accountability and school improvement system. While the retired No Child Left Behind law succeeded in making states identify and address local achievement gaps, it was broadly criticized as a punitive system that placed too much emphasis on test scores. Also, its credibility was quickly undermined once it became apparent that its ambitious goal — that all schools achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014 — was unrealistic.   

Moving forward, what states decide to adopt as an additional indicator of school quality or student success in their acountability plans is of particular interest. This wild card holds lots of potential, offering states the ability to adopt a more holistic definition of school success. Possibilities include student engagement, teacher engagement, postsecondary readiness, school climate and safety, access to and completion of advanced courses, expulsion rates and more.

With the help of a multi-pronged workgroup, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has already narrowed it down to a frontrunner: chronic absenteeism. From a technical standpoint, the data systems are already in place to support tracking this new measure. By being more intentional in how schools use attendance records, educators can offer targeted support for students at risk of falling behind or dropping out altogether.

(Chronic) absenteeism

The Education Department has an accountability workgroup that’s been tasked with hashing out a number of elements in the state’s ESSA plan. This work includes identifying which new accountability indicators will be used, deciding how all indicators will be measured, assigning weights to each indicator, and determining how underperforming schools in need of intervention or additional supports will be identified.

This workgroup consists of two committees, as well as a subcommittee dedicated to looking exclusively at the new indicator of school quality or student success — also known as the fifth indicator. The technical committee is composed of representatives from school districts, charter schools, higher education institutions, and research and assessment experts. The advisory committee — which includes representatives from education nonprofits, civic leaders, community organizations, educators and more — is serving as the sounding board, to help ensure the new accountability system is equitable and meaningful.

The groups have been meeting periodically since July and seem to have reached consensus on adopting chronic absenteeism — federally defined as missing at least 15 school days, or roughly 10 percent of the school year — as Minnesota's fifth indicator of choice, largely because the data already exists and is consistent across districts.

Dave Heistad, the executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for Bloomington Public Schools who’s serving on the technical committee and fifth indicator subcommittee, says the calculation is pretty straightforward: using attendance numbers already collected for the Minnesota Automated Reporting Student System (MARRS) reports, simply divide each student’s number of days attended by the number of days they were enrolled.

Currently, the way schools calculate attendance rates for federal reports masks disparities in the attendance rates of student subgroups and individual students get lost in the aggregate. Schools just divide the number of students who show up every day by total student enrollment. “Almost every group has 90 percent (attendance) or higher,” Heistad said.

A shift to tracking chronic absenteeism would reveal which individual students are missing out on their education. It’s a more meaningful use of attendance data.

Heistad is in favor of adopting absenteeism even before it gets to the point of being labeled “chronic” as Minnesota’s fifth indicator. In the Bloomington district, he’s been tracking individual student attendance rates for the past few years and has seen this information put to good use. The district is able to see which student subgroups are struggling with attendance and students who fall below a 95 percent attendance rate are flagged for various support measures.

“Our American Indians have the lowest overall attendance,” he said. “We’ve seen some success with what we call our department of supports, in intervening with students.”

In his own research, he’s found that students who attend at least 95 percent of school days show higher proficiencies and growth in math, specifically.

The workgroup is still hashing out which threshold it will use to track absenteeism — either focusing on those who fall below a 90 percent attendance rate (the rate generally used to track chronic absenteeism), or capturing those who fall below a 95 percent attendance rate.

According to a recent report, nationally, 13 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year. It’s alarming because even the most promising achievement-gap closing efforts can’t help students who simply don't show up.

“Chronic absenteeism is a data point that matters a lot to students and their success in school,” Madaline Edison, founding executive director of Educators for Excellence in Minnesota who’s serving on the advisory committee, said. “Because if students aren't in school, they’re not learning.”

Regardless of how absenteeism is factored into Minnesota’s new accountability plan, the federal law states that no fifth indicator can hold more weight than any of the four non-negotiable accountability measures: growth and proficiency in math and reading, graduation rates and ELL proficiency. Heistad figures the new attendance indicator will end up counting for 10-15 percent of a school’s overall score. As mandated under NCLB, ESSA still requires states to use these scores to identify low-performing schools for interventions.

Are more indicators needed?

Within the accountability committees, the discussion around how to integrate absenteeism into the state’s new accountability plan is ongoing. Chronic absenteeism could stand alone as its own fifth indicator. In Heistad’s estimates, it could also be counted as a measure of student engagement, a fifth indicator that could encompass multiple data points.

Based on the discussions she’s been a part of, Edison thinks chronic absenteeism may be framed as one measure of school climate or environment — a category that participants have talked a lot about. But if that’s how it shakes out, she says, more work needs to be done in the coming years to capture a more holistic picture of school climate.

“I don't think chronic absenteeism is a perfect measure, nor is it a very broad measure of school climate,” she said, noting chronic absenteeism is a good start, but things like discipline data, student or teacher satisfaction surveys or measures of social-emotional learning could also be considered valuable measures of school climate. “My hope is that, long term, we will develop the data system to be able to measure the things we think matter most. We shouldn’t decide based on the things we have available today.”

Discussions on accountability will continue through Dec. 6, with the state aiming to submit a draft of its completed ESSA plan by early March.

From a compliance standpoint, the state could add chronic absenteeism and call it good. But those involved in the workgroup discussions see this as an opportunity to dig deeper into local education issues by capturing even more layers of education data.

Other possibilities that have gained traction in Minnesota, but likely won't move forward until they’re matched with a viable method of data collection, include social-emotional learning, behavior — which could include measures for things like suspensions and time spent away from class due to a behavior issue — and college and career readiness.  

The addition of a fifth accountability indicator is just one facet of ESSA that each state is working to define. In Minnesota, the planning process has entailed a great deal of community outreach, but local educators and advocates have already raised concerns that the March deadline is too aggressive. They’ve asked Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to wait until July to submit a draft of the state’s plan to the U.S. Department of Education. This would allow for more diverse community input on an accountability plan that’s fairly esoteric, but incredibly important.

“There is still a great need to make sure students, educators and families are part of the process,” Edison said. “It’s crucial that MDE and other organizations work to get people who are most affected by these decisions at the table.” 

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Comments (1)

Just a thought or two

Expediency ("we already have the data") ought not to be the primary factor in determining whether or not a particular type of measurement somehow captures the alleged "quality" of a school or the "success" of a student. Attendance is certainly an important metric, and I might even argue that it's the most important one, but I'm a little skeptical of the blanket statement that “…if students aren't in school, they’re not learning…”

Admittedly, it was decades ago, but I had kids in class who missed a day of school because their parent(s) took them on a field trip, or kept them home to attend an important cultural event, and while I'd certainly have preferred that the girl or boy in question be in my classroom, I'm not prepared to state that they learned nothing because they missed school that day. In my Trumpian moments, I'd like to pretend that my history classes were the most vital and important things in their lives, but the truth is that those students who missed my class on occasion seem to have miraculously managed to lead reasonably fulfilling lives in spite of their absences. I don't want to be misinterpreted here – attendance is crucial to academic success – but it's not the only factor at work in achieving that goal. Yes, if you miss 2 days a week on a regular basis, you'll likely fall so far behind that catching up academically might be something closer to fantasy than reality, but lots of kids get sick more than once during a school year.

And there are other factors at work. At my high school, the foreign language department annually sponsored a field trip in which a couple dozen of our foreign language students (the more affluent ones, at least, or those who were best at sales of various fundraising items) traveled to Mexico for 2 weeks (10 consecutive absences), ostensibly to study Spanish as it's actually spoken, rather than the textbook variety. Sometimes, the kids who went on that trip made up the work they'd missed when they got back, sometimes they didn't. Most of them still managed very good grades and productive lives despite those absences, whether they made up the missed work or not. My own personal bias, though I neither speak nor write a language beyond English, was, and is, that foreign travel was, ipso facto, a valuable learning experience, and I went to some trouble not to penalize a kid who missed my class to take part in that international field trip.

While I certainly agree with the headline to Erin’s piece – school success IS more than test scores and graduation rates – I continue to think that some of the metrics being mentioned are either being misapplied or are matters out of the school’s (and the teachers’) control. It’s not a great leap to move from “Why aren’t kids attending as we’d like them to?” to “How can we make our school more attractive to kids?” That’s a VERY slippery slope, akin to student evaluations of teachers, which can often have great value, but that can also descend fairly easily and quickly into a popularity contest that does nothing to enhance either student learning or teacher performance. The best teachers are not always the most popular ones, and my own limited experience suggests that the friendliest and most inviting school may not be an academic leader.

The end goal cannot be – if academic success is what we’re after as a society – happy graduates. Instead, it ought to be skilled and knowledgeable graduates. My experience was that kids who KNOW they’ve learned the subject at hand, have nailed it on every test or quiz they’ve gotten, are pretty happy kids. Academic accomplishment often brings its own reward. It’s a grave mistake, I think, to affix to teachers and their schools the responsibility for factors that are far beyond the scope and ability of any school or any group of teachers, or individual teachers. Yes, we ought to make school and classrooms welcoming and inviting places as much as we can, but too often we expect those same schools and teachers to magically transform or eliminate from children’s lives a host of issues over which schools and teachers have almost no influence, much less control. Poverty and violence are two that leap immediately to mind, and there are many others. Beyond that, as our current political season has amply demonstrated, we live in a society that, to be at least somewhat diplomatic, often values emotion and perception over reason and facts. Having been on the receiving end of a few parental complaints over the years that had no basis in fact, my own experience was that it’s difficult to overcome the irrational.

I continue to find it “interesting” that many (not all, but too many to suit my own tastes) of the metrics being devised to measure student academic progress and success carefully step around the judgment of the licensed professional at the front of the room who’s being paid to do just that – evaluate the progress, or the lack thereof, displayed by a particular kid in a particular area of knowledge.