ODE’s new metric on absenteeism measures a symptom, sidesteps the cause

By Connor Brown


Earlier this week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a report on chronic absenteeism in Ohio’s public schools, highlighting the need to increase attendance efforts and noting the damaging affect absenteeism can have on a student’s ability to succeed and graduate on time. This article was inspired by an “attendance summit” held in Cleveland last month which featured nationally-recognized leaders focusing on academic in-school attendance.


It was a comprehensive and deep dive into the symptoms of truancy and the strategies being used to pull students out of this education death spiral. While the article notes that issues like poverty, race, and other urban issues greatly affected a student’s attendance, it fails to address, (and perhaps the conference itself also failed to address), the root causes of poor attendance.


Here’s the graph the Plain Dealer used to draw a comparison between absenteeism and a district performance index:



While this graph is correct, it answers the wrong question. The question should not be “if a student misses class will they be more or less likely to succeed?” We know that answer is “yes.” Instead, the graph below would have been more appropriate as it’s a measure of Performance Index as compared to the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged.




When compared to one another, these two graphs look very similar. However the question asked by the second graph is more telling: “will poverty affect a districts overall academic performance?” Clearly, this is also a “yes.” But here, unlike the first graph, a more meaningful question is asked because it gets to the fundamental problem, and doesn’t compare a school’s academic performance with a symptom of that problem.


Using this measurement, one can look at the symptoms of poverty and what role they play in limiting a school’s academic performance. It’s in this context a conversation on absenteeism should happen. A district receives a lower performance index score because it has a high chronic absenteeism rate, and it has a high absenteeism rate because it’s a high-poverty school district.


Poverty affects its performance in a myriad of ways.


  • Mobility is a symptom of poverty as poorer students tend to move around more than wealthier students and are educationally disaffected by the forced transitions.
  • Poorer students tend to have jobs and possibly even families they must support as well, which has a negative impact on attendance and performance.
  • Single-parent household is another factor dealt with in higher rates by poor students, as a broken or difficult home life affects school life.
  • Drugs and drug-related violence are more common in high poverty areas and sometimes those issues are brought into the schools. The list could go on.


Below is a chart showing urban districts and online schools serving similar populations and their strong relationships to symptoms of poverty:


The above table clearly demonstrates that chronic absenteeism is a symptom of chronic poverty. And now that the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has indicated that absenteeism will be measured on the next report cards, high-poverty districts again have another metric they will fail based on the population they serve. Just as the value-added measure became a simple measurement of poverty, so certainly will the chronic absenteeism measurement. ODE, for some reason, finds it rewarding to measure symptoms of poverty and not account for the cause of these symptoms in its metrics. And while few would condemn the efforts to get more students back in school, the reality is their efforts will likely only have a marginal effect on the total measure unless they are prepared to deal with the root cause.


While urban schools do receive additional funding to deal with poverty-related issues (though this aid is only given to traditional schools, not eSchools), these schools should also demand a metric that gives them a fair sense of the progress they are making relative to their poverty rate. ODE should stop punishing schools for dealing with poor students and instead help schools deal with the root issue: poverty. And they can help by first accounting for these measurable symptoms in their report cards to give schools an accurate and fair metric of success in their programs.