Authentic Choice In Attendance Part II

Yesterday’s post elicited a lot of comments on social media and stories from parents around the country about their loss of parental rights to direct the lives of their children when it comes to school attendance.

A parent whose school requires a doctor’s note for every absence.
Not every illness requires a visit to a physician to prescribe. (Chicken pox comes to mind. Pink eye is pretty easy to figure out, too.) And what a waste to spend money needlessly diagnosing what the parent already knows. (And what about the illnes that goes through the family. (Are we really supposed to bring each child in as they come down with an illness, particularly if the physician said it was a virus and they should do nothing but wait it out?)

A school nurse who made the wrong call on a sick child endangering her life

My child went to the school nurse to say she was having an asthma attack and needed her inhaler (which, according to school rules has to be kept in the nurse’s office). The nurse told her she wasn’t wheezing (over 25% of asthmatics don’t) so no inhaler and she had to go back to class. My daughter her laid her head on her desk and “fell asleep” until the end of school. The teacher then put her on the bus. They never called me! My daughter barely dragged her way in the door and I knew immediately she was suffering so off to the ER we went. My daughter had to be on a nebulizer and spent a week at home in recovery. You have to bet that nurse heard from me! She nearly killed my daughter – who was allowed to carry her own inhaler from them on.

One mother related a story that will be familiar to many and shows that the policy is sweeping in families it was most likely never intended to affect, the ones who are already deeply committed to their childrens’ education.

I was told to bring my child(ren) to school and have their temp. taken so that they can excuse the absence. How absolutely stupid!! I’m a parent and know when my child is sick! My oldest child missed 11 days (not all consecutive) in one semester because she was sick with the flu, got strep throat, and she attended her great grandmothers funeral. I called in everyday to excuse her. I got a letter from the Vice Principal’s office telling me that I needed to meet with her to discuss an “Attendance Plan”. Mind you, I volunteer in my 3 children’s classes at the school weekly, I was the 2nd VP of Ways and Means for the schools PTA, a very known person around campus, not one to keep my kids home for school just because. I raised hell…. I was not going to be PUNISHED for my child being sick! The Vice Principal agreed to waive me from signing the “Attendance Plan” which in part stated that I will make sure that my child be on time and not miss any school for a set amount of time. I was then told to bring the child(ren) in to have their temp taken if they were sick. I was also asked to bring a death notice to get the day they missed for the funeral excused. I laughed and walked out.

The problems with new attendance policies are not unique to Missouri because the genesis of the focus on attendance WAS NOT STATE LED. It came from the NCLB waivers. The same mangled policies are being implemented nationally and similar “implementation problems” are found in all states.

This report makes the link between these policies and NCLB clear. Accountable for Absenteeism: 4 Ways that States Can Use Chronic Absence in NCLB Waiver Applications

Using Attendance in Waiver Applications

States should embed individual student measures—assessing how many students in each school are chronically absent (missing 10 percent or more of school) and how many are achieving satisfactory attendance (missing 5 percent or fewer days)—in the accountability systems they develop for waiver applications.

These guidelines were then incorporated in the state’s School Improvement Plan (MSIP5)

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The plan actually drills down to hours of absence. “This method is calculated by dividing the hours of attendance by the total hours enrolled, then multiplying by 100 rounded to the tenth.”

In Missouri, state statute defines a school day as “160.041. 1. The ‘minimum school day’ consists of three hours for schools with a five-day school week or four hours for schools with a four-day school week in which the pupils are under the guidance and direction of teachers in the teaching process.”  But according to the new policy, if your child leaves school an hour early each day for, lets say, chemotherapy, in three days they could mark your child as having missed an entire day of school, even though he spent six hours, twice the state required minimum, in school all three of those days.  Even if the school defines the day as the full seven hours, in a week and a half worth of chemo, while keeping up with all the school work, your child could be marked as chronically absent and interventions might kick in.

What schools don’t seem to be telling parents like the one mentioned yesterday whose child is terminally ill, is that there is an exception with a code that could be applied to their situation. “The Stop Out Code was added by the Department to provide districts an appropriate way to report students who dropped out and then returned at a later date having been out of school for unknown reasons an extended period of time… The Stop Out Code may not be used unless the absence exceeds 20 consecutive calendar days.” If your child is very ill or has some extenuating problem, it is better to un-enroll them for at least 20 days, address the problem and then determine if they should be re-enrolled.

Before I suggest a policy for districts to  consider which acknowledges parental rights and returns some common sense to their absence policies, we must look at the machinations the state plans to go through to account for missing academic data (i.e. data about students who don’t have actual test scores). From MSIP5:

The model also uses prior year exam scores from the “other subject” to predict current year scores. For example, when a mathematics MAP score is the outcome score, a prior year English language arts score for the same student from the previous grade also is used as a predictor score. In cases where the lagged off-subject score is unavailable, the lagged off-subject score is set to zero (0), the standardized mean. This maximizes the amount of data included in the estimation and accounts for students with poor attendance during the week of examinations (a group that is likely to be non- random).

This data strategy sets a student’s missing, lagged off-subject score equal to the statewide exam average. However, students with missing exam scores may systematically over or underperform relative to students that truly scored at the statewide average on the previous year off-subject exam (and for whom these data are available). To control for this possibility, an indicator variable signifying the presence of a missing score is also included in the model. Moreover, the model includes an interaction term to give more weight to the same-subject lagged MAP score for the observations where the lagged off-subject MAP score is missing, as it is now the sole source of empirical information about prior test performance.

The point in looking at this section, where they attempt to assign a score to a student without actually having test data from the student, is to show the state’s willingness to consider other sources of information and calculation to determine if a particular student is making progress towards college readiness. Given this flexibility and the stated ultimate goal of college and career readiness, a form of waiver for the attendance policy seems reasonable. The wording can be cleaned up, but you get the idea.

“Students whose attendance drops below [the trigger point for interventions] can apply for and receive a waiver from any interventions if any of the following conditions are met:

1.  Student has a GPA of 2.5 or better.

2. Student has shown willingness to keep up with school work while absent and is not behind in assignments

3. There is strong evidence of parental involvement in school and their child’s education

Furthermore, the district recognizes the Supreme Courts decisions in Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which held that parenting is a fundamental constitutional right, and among “the basic civil rights of man.” As such, no state regulation or district policy shall usurp this civil right by removing a parents ability to take their child from school for any reason they deem appropriate provided they inform the school of their intent to withdraw the child and the reason for the absence. This shall be noted as an excused absence.

(For more information on these Supreme Court decisions and the critical subsequent case law that supported these decisions please click here.)

If the state and the district are ultimately concerned about student’s preparedness for college or career, they must recognize that a sick child will not be at their peak academic performance level in school. Prioritizing attendance over academics could actually hurt the scores that matter the most (to districts). Incentivizing parents to send or leave their sick child in school is borderline dangerous public health policy and, again, could affect the academic performance of many students, not just the initial sick one or increase overall absenteeism.

If a waiver for the law of the land (NCLB) can be easily granted by a single administration official with no legal authority to do so, surely a local school principal can use the same waiver making authority to make determinations on something as basic as a child’s absence.


Published November 19, 2014

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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