Taking attendance

Student absences are about to have higher stakes in most states. Will cheating follow?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

Schools across the country are about to be held accountable for student attendance — attaching stakes to a measure that previously had much less significance and increasing the risk that schools will try to manipulate that data.

But it’s unclear how effectively states have prepared for that possibility, or have systems in place to accurately monitor absenteeism data at all.

“It’s human nature, when the stakes rise, to want to game the system,” said Phyllis Jordan of the Georgetown-based think tank FutureEd. She recently wrote an analysis finding that 36 states plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure schools under ESSA, the federal education law. “In that regard, I don’t think chronic absenteeism is any different than other measures, like test scores.”

Of course, one way for schools to improve their chronic absenteeism marks is to add support that helps students to show up to school. That’s exactly how experts and policymakers hope educators will respond, and because states are only using chronic absenteeism as a small portion of the accountability system, the incentives for cheating may not be strong. But past experience with evaluation systems suggests that a small number of schools will resort to unscrupulous means.

“When you’ve got high stakes on something, if there’s a way to corrupt it, some people are going to corrupt it,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an education researcher at Northwestern who wrote a brief highlighting the advantages of using chronic absenteeism to measure schools. “The question is, how big is this incentive? How many schools are going to engage in this bad behavior?”

High stakes could lead to manipulation, but how big of a problem this will be is an open question

A 2003 study in Chicago found evidence of cheating on standardized tests in about 5 percent of elementary classrooms. More subtle gaming has also occured: research found evidence that teachers focused on topics likely to appear on the state test, at the expense of other academic standards.

The potential problem may be more acute when it comes to student absences because of the all-or-nothing way chronic absenteeism is measured.

In most states, a student is deemed chronically absent if they miss 10 percent of school days — around 18 days for those enrolled for a full school year. That means that schools might be especially tempted to mark a student present on the day of their 18th absence. (If student attendance rates are bunched right below the chronic absenteeism bar — say, many more are gone 17 rather than 18 days — that could be evidence of manipulation.)

“We need to use accountability to promote an early warning approach — not just making sure kids are one less day absent,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that promotes efforts to improve school attendance.

Both Jordan and Schanzenbach noted that, because states are generally counting chronic absenteeism for only about 5 to 10 percent of school ratings, the incentives to cheat are likely to be fewer.

“It’s going be an empirical question about how big is the corruption of this — my prediction is it’s going to be reasonably small,” said Schanzenbach.

“This is why we encourage people to keep chronic absence to a relatively low percentage of the overall weighting — if it’s less than 10 percent … it’s not worth investing in trying to game it,” said Chang.

Still, attendance manipulation scandals have cropped up before: A 2016 investigation in Chicago, where student attendance rates are a part of school scores and principal evaluations, found that four high schools had systematically changed attendance records.

Others are concerned about data issues beyond obvious cheating.

“I’m worried about outright manipulation, but I’m also worried about sloppiness of reporting and inconsistencies,” said Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-oriented consulting firm that has undertaken an extensive review of state ESSA plans. Details like how schools count partial-day absences, or what happens when a teacher forgets to take attendance, will take on new importance.

States are taking different approaches

Experts agrees that there should be some protections against manipulation of attendance data. But it’s unclear to what extent states have those safeguards in place.

Chalkbeat reached out to the 10 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism and have had their ESSA plans approved by the federal government. Nine of the state departments of education responded.

A representative for the Massachusetts Department of Education said that because the state can see changes to attendance rates, “any data manipulation would need to be done systematically and could not be done after the fact without raising flags as to why so many post-dated attendance changes were being made.”

Oregon already looks for unusual trends in attendance data, but does not conduct audits of local districts. “However, the accountability office has conducted such audits on other accountability data,” an education official said. “I would anticipate that we might do the same with attendance data submissions, should concerns arise regarding the validity of that data.”

But some states mention checks that might not catch most manipulation.

Illinois, for example, ensures that “a student can’t have more absences recorded than days enrolled in the school.”

A spokesperson from the Tennessee Department of Education noted just one kind of potential irregularity: “If the school said a student was in class all day but got in an accident or committed a crime during that window, the school could be liable.”

Some states said that they are working on this issue, but specifics have not yet been fleshed out.

Delaware “is reviewing current processes around absenteeism and chronic absenteeism.” Maine will be hiring an ESSA data coordinator “who will monitor data integrity,” but “the exact procedure and policy around this is in process of being written,” according to a spokesperson.

In Arizona, “the Department [of Education] is meeting with various stakeholders to determine ways to improve reporting of attendance and absenteeism.”

States that have already been using chronic absenteeism or attendance rates to determine funding may face less of a learning curve.

In its school performance reports, “New Jersey has included chronic absenteeism data for elementary and middle schools for years,” a spokesperson said.

Connecticut, meanwhile, has been “collecting and reporting chronic absenteeism data for many years” and has a number of checks in place, including flagging any school with large increases or decreases in chronic absenteeism, according to a spokesperson.

See all nine states’ full explanations for how they plan to protect against manipulation of absence data. Want more education news? Subscribe to Chalkbeat’s new national newsletter here.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.