The State Education Department (SED) has stepped up efforts to combat chronic student absenteeism, but an audit released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli identified issues that could hinder SED's efforts in this area.
"Students who frequently miss school are often disengaged, falling behind academically and at risk for dropping out of school entirely," said DiNapoli "The State Education Department is doing well cautioning parents and school districts about the perils of chronic absenteeism. But given how vital it is for our children to be in school and learning, I urge the department to do even more and reexamine the guidelines provided to local school officials to make it clearer what efforts should be taken to reduce student absenteeism."
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of enrolled school days in a year for any reason – excused or unexcused. SED figures indicate nearly 19 percent of students in the state's public school districts were considered chronically absent during the 2016-17 school year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the effects of chronic absenteeism increase the chances that students will drop out, which has been linked to increased rates of poverty and poor health.
In 2016 and 2017, SED sent memos to school districts, charter schools and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) emphasizing the importance of addressing chronic absenteeism. These memos alerted school officials to information available from the department that could help districts identify students who are chronically absent as well as students at risk of being chronically absent. SED also reminded officials about the importance of reporting accurate school-level chronic absenteeism data.
After sending these memos, however, SED did not require school officials to take specific action nor did the department perform any oversight or monitoring to determine the extent to which districts implemented strategies to address chronic absenteeism.
DiNapoli's auditors examined 18 school districts to determine if SED's efforts have been effective and where improvement may be needed. Auditors compared student absence data from SED's system with data from systems at five school districts and identified discrepancies in reporting.
The districts examined were Albany City School District (Albany Co.); Amsterdam City School District (Montgomery); Haldey-Luzerne Central School District (Warren); Peekskill Central School District (Westchester); and the Rochester City School District (Monroe).
Overall, auditors found that the number of absences reported in the department's system and the five districts' own systems did not match in 45 percent of the records reviewed (89 of 200 students). Notably, 71 of the 89 students with discrepancies were from two of the five districts – Hadley-Luzerne and Peekskill.
Although SED requires school districts, BOCES and charter schools to certify the accuracy of chronic absenteeism data, it has not established clear guidelines regarding efforts they should take to ensure the data is accurate prior to the certification. Moreover, practices in each of the districts differ. In one district, for instance, high school students who are not in attendance at the morning's homeroom period are reported as absent. In contrast, high school students in another district are not considered absent until they miss more than half of the total scheduled periods in a day.
Auditors also reviewed attendance policies and documentation of actions taken by these districts to address students who were identified as chronically absent or at risk of being so.
They found attendance policies in four of the five districts did not specifically address chronic absenteeism. Furthermore, the districts largely took the same actions to address student attendance whether the student was chronically absent or at risk of being so. This typically included sending letters to the student's home, phone calls or emails to the parent or guardian if absences continued, and eventually a meeting with the parent or guardian.
Two of the districts – Albany and Rochester – provided evidence of interventions above and beyond the typical letters home and phone calls to parents or guardians. One intervention involved district personnel and community volunteers visiting the homes of students with past attendance issues. Another district worked with families to resolve students' transportation obstacles as a way to improve attendance. However, auditors found that actions such as these were generally the exception at the districts visited.
Lacking stronger direction from SED however, school districts' efforts to address chronic absenteeism may fall short of the expected goal of increased student engagement and achievement.
Department officials acknowledged they expect improved outcomes for students and districts as a result of their actions on chronic absenteeism. However, without establishing clearer, more specific standards and improving its oversight of districts' actions, the likelihood of achieving their desired outcomes is diminished.
As a result of the audit, DiNapoli recommended SED:
- Take steps to ensure that students' school attendance data in the department's system accurately reflects the data reported by school districts, charter schools and BOCES;
- Provide clear guidance to districts on how to set up local attendance codes that will translate the correct data to the department's attendance system;
- Work with districts to develop guidance for certifying chronic absenteeism data;
- Ensure communications to school districts contain sufficient detail outlining expected actions to address chronic absenteeism; and
- Monitor districts' efforts to address chronic absenteeism and share best practices.
The response from SED officials is included in the final report, which can be found online at: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093018/17s52.htm
Find out how your government money is spent at Open Book New York. Track municipal spending, the state's 150,000 contracts, billions in state payments, and public authority data. Visit the Reading Room for contract FOIL requests, bid protest decisions, and commonly requested data.