Yesterday, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released a preliminary report investigating high school student absentee rates in the aftermath of the WAMU and NPR story revealing that students at Ballou High School were graduated even after missing more than three months of class. It was not flattering. From the findings:
“Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years absenteeism among students in their fourth year of high school steadily increased, particularly at the highest levels of absenteeism (Figure 1). In the 2016-17 school year, 7.9% of graduates missed more than half of instructional days (extremely chronically absent), up from 3.7% in 2014-15. While the number of non-graduates has decreased over the past three years, the proportion of non-graduates who have missed more than half of instructional days at their graduating school has risen by five percentage points. More than half (51.1%) of non-graduates in 2016-17 were extremely chronically absent. The proportion of graduates among profoundly chronically absent or extremely chronically absent students has increased significantly over the past three years (Figure 2). In 2016-17, 82.6% of the 579 students in their fourth year of high school who missed between 30%-49.99% of school graduated; 44.8% of the 592 students who missed more than 50% of school graduated. The graduation rate for students with extreme chronic absenteeism has increased by more than 20 percentage points between 2014-15 and 2016-17. The number of students graduating in spite of missing more than half of instructional days has more than doubled.
In 2016-17, 11.4% of graduates from D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) high schools had missed more than 50% of instructional days at their graduating school. More than 30% of graduates (30.6%) missed at least thirty percent of instructional days. While the rise in high rates of absenteeism among graduates and nongraduates is alarming, equally concerning is the precipitous decline in the proportion of students in the graduating cohort with satisfactory attendance. In 2014-15, nearly 20% of graduates had missed less than 5% of instructional days, but by 2016-17 the corresponding proportion had dropped to 7.7%. Only 178 graduates out of 2,307 from all DCPS high schools had satisfactory attendance during the 2016-17 school year; more than 75% of graduates met the state definition of chronic absenteeism, missing more than 10% of school days.”
Charter schools, however, have a diametrically opposed record compared to DCPS, eventhough the sector serves a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students:
“High schools in the charter sector have had much more stable patterns of attendance in the past three years than high schools in DCPS (Figures 9 and 10). The distributions of absenteeism for both graduates and non-graduates do not appear to vary significantly from year-to-year. Across the charter sector, there are few students within the highest bands of absenteeism, and students who reach profound or extreme levels of chronic absence tend to be concentrated among non-graduates. In 2016-17, less than 5% of students, fewer than ten students total, who missed more than 50% of instructional days graduated. The graduation rate for profoundly chronically absent students grew between 2014-15 and 2016-17, but has remained below 50%.”
So what are the implications of these numbers? There are many. First, as argued here, Mayor Bowser must immediately entertain proposals for a high performing charter to take over Ballou. Next, we need a replacement for DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson. In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, new full-time education reporter Perry Stein revealed that Mr. Wilson has finally made the decision that the principal of Ballou when all of the trouble at the school was noticed will not be returning. In addition, in reaction to the claim that teachers had known about the chronic absentee problem with seniors for sometime and that administrators had taken steps to cover them up, he is going to appoint an ombudsman to listen to employee concerns.
These are baby steps. When proficiency rates are around 30 percent some bold changes need to be made. Let’s see how many charters can be permitted to manage low performing DCPS facilities. We, as a city, need to shift education reform into high gear. Our students deserve nothing less. State Board of Education, are you listening?