Rethinking student attendance and engagement tracking

Enrollment drops across the country during distance learning require that we take aggressive steps to better measure student participation and engagement.
Dr. Amy Jackson is the Vice President of Applied Research & Strategy at Illuminate Education.
Dr. Amy Jackson is the Vice President of Applied Research & Strategy at Illuminate Education.

Districts across the country have seen their enrollment figures drop dramatically amid the pandemic. And as schools continue to educate some or all of their students remotely, many are reporting alarmingly lower attendance rates and engagement levels this school year.

In Massachusetts, for instance, public school enrollment declined by nearly 4 percent this fall, the Boston Globe reports — a drop of more than 37,000 students statewide. Data cited by Chalkbeat shows that New York public schools have lost 31,000 students since last year. Moreover, monthly attendance reports released by the Connecticut State Department of Education continue to confirm substantially lower attendance rates among the state’s most vulnerable students.

In some cases, parents are finding alternatives to educate their children, such as homeschooling or enrolling in private schools. In fact, many private schools saw enrollment increases as they began the year with in-person instruction, according to the New York Times.

But, sadly, in many other cases, students simply just aren’t logging on for instruction or adequately engaging with teachers. Despite widespread efforts, some students still don’t have access to the technology they must have to participate online, while others lack a necessary support structure at home.

Sounding the alarm

These trends are concerning for a number of reasons – one being that federal and state funding for school systems is tied to enrollment. But it is the drop in student engagement and the potential impact on student achievement that is most alarming.

According to the nonprofit Attendance Works, “Research shows the clear benefits of regular school attendance and the high costs related to absenteeism, including students not being able to read by the third grade and dropping out of high school.” Moreover, “Chronic absenteeism exacerbates equity gaps by causing students vulnerable to educational inequities to fall even further behind.”

District leaders need to know who’s not attending and why, so they can intervene as necessary to reengage students. But tracking attendance and participation within remote settings is a challenge. Does attendance mean showing up for a synchronous online class? Is it logging into a learning management system (LMS)? Is it turning in an assignment?

While many states have scrambled to establish guidelines and mandates, an analysis by Attendance Works found that there is great disparity between states in their policies. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia require attendance to be taken daily. Another five states require attendance to be taken, but not daily — and 11 leave the choice about how and when to take attendance to the discretion of local officials.

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States’ definitions of what attendance even means during the pandemic also vary widely. In California, daily participation is used to track attendance, but this can mean any live interaction with a teacher and/or virtual assignments. In Connecticut, a remote student is considered “present” if the total time he or she spends on schoolwork and/or synchronous online classes equals at least half the school day.

Deeper insight needed

To ensure that K-12 leaders can effectively track participation and use this information to reconnect with students, Attendance Works has issued policy recommendations for state and local education officials.

For instance, states should help build the capacity of school systems to collect, analyze, and use actionable attendance data. At the local level, districts need data systems that are capable of giving them deeper insight into how students are engaging with remote learning.

In other words, K-12 leaders should use data that is coded by the mode of instruction (such as remote synchronous, remote asynchronous, or in-person learning), so they can understand how participation and achievement might vary from one mode to another. They should also look beyond traditional attendance figures that count students as “present” or “absent” on a given day, examining factors such as how much time students are spending within educational software programs to learn more about their level of engagement in school.

The Distance Learning Engagement Report available in Illuminate’s DnA platform does this well. By pulling data from a district’s LMS and other sources, it helps K-12 leaders understand which students are participating in remote learning and which aren’t, as well as which factors are likely responsible for a student’s lack of engagement.

California’s Riverside Unified School District has used this tool to identify students who are at risk and determine appropriate interventions. “This has been extremely powerful for us,” says Dr. Daniel Sosa, the district’s Director of Research, Assessment and Evaluation.

Given the irrefutable link between attendance, engagement, and achievement, K-12 leaders must consider how they can monitor student participation remote environments most effectively. Educators and administrators should look beyond traditional measures such as present/absent to identify students who aren’t being reached — and then take steps to reengage them in instruction.

Dr. Amy Jackson is the Vice President of Applied Research & Strategy at Illuminate Education.

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