DC graduation scandal shows how chronic absenteeism threatens America’s schools


Each year in the United States, approximately 5 to 7.5 million students in the nation’s K-12 schools miss a month or more of school. That means 150 to 225 million instructional days are lost every school year.

The problem is more pronounced in low-income urban communities throughout the country. In elementary school, for example, students who live in poverty were found to be as much as five times more likely to be chronically absent than their advantaged peers.

The reasons students miss school can vary, according to “The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools.” The reasons range from circumstances, such as family responsibilities or unstable living arrangements, or the need to work, that prevent students from coming to school, to unsafe conditions or bullying that lead students to avoid school. Or, students may simply not see the value of going to school, the report states.

Students lose the most when it comes to being chronically absent, which is often defined as missing 10 percent or more of the total school days in a year. That translates to 18 days or more in a typical 180-day school year.

For instance, students with more school absences have lower test scoresand grades, greater chances of dropping out of high school, and, subsequently, higher odds of future unemployment.

These disparities are a big deal, especially since there are already notable differences in performance based on family income, even by the time that children first enter school.

This is why — as researchers who have focused on absenteeism and better ways to keep students engaged — we found the recent report about students graduating from Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., despite missing large amounts of school so concerning.

Pressure to pass students

The report — prepared by a consulting firm for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education — found that institutional pressure contributed to a “culture of passing.” It was a culture created in part by “aggressive graduation and promotion goals” developed by the central office at District of Columbia Public Schools. It was also a culture in which passing and graduating students was “expected, sometimes in contradiction to standards of academic rigor and integrity.”

“School leaders across DCPS were evaluated based in part on measures of promotion and [graduation rates], while teachers at 10 schools were evaluated based on passing percentage,” the report found. Additionally, some of the goals “appeared unachievable” based on the previous academic performance of the students in question.

The report also found that “empathy for the extreme needs” of students, especially those who were poor, also contributed to the culture of passing.

Ballou was not the only school that became susceptible to this culture of passing. Indeed, the report found that out of 2,758 District of Columbia Public Schools graduates in the 2016-2017 school year, 937 — or 34 percent — “graduated with the assistance of policy violations.” The report found 572 students had passed at least one course with 30 or more absences — a violation of district policy.

Part of a larger problem

The Ballou scandal, which last week reportedly prompted an FBI investigation, is now poised to join a series of similar education scandals across the nation, including test-score forgery scandals in Atlanta and Philadelphia.

While testing has been a major focus of education policy discussions, chronic absenteeism is increasingly a focal point, too, and rightly so. However, the danger is that as we put more focus and weight on a single measure, such as attendance or graduation, the more that measure is subject to corruption and manipulation. At least this is the central tenet of what is known as Campbell’s Law.

A major reason why graduation is seen as such an important indicator of school success is because a high school diploma is now considered a minimum qualification to enter the workforce.

This is in stark contrast to the 1970s, when having a high school diploma was enough to help you enter a middle-class profession.

At present the national graduation rate stands at about 83 percent. This means nearly 1 in 5 students is not graduating and is not likely to enter the workforce and earn a living wage. Those who never graduate pose a growing social cost on society. Specifically, they are more likely to rely on social services and commit crimes at a higher rate.

Increasing the graduation rate is a natural solution to this problem, but only if the diploma actually reflects the minimum skills expected by employers. Without policies and practices that improve graduation rates through real improvements in learning and credit acquisition, it is likely that we will continue to hear about schools like Ballou. These will be schools where educators — when faced with rising requirements and existing structural challenges — elect to fabricate success rather than report the real and sometimes intractable challenges of getting high school-aged youth to show up and complete assignments.

So what can be done to prevent similar scandals such as the one that has currently engulfed Ballou?

Interventions work

First, educators and policymakers should recognize low-cost interventions that have been shown to reduce absenteeism. These include things as simple as sending parents a single postcard reminder about the importance of attending school. This was shown to increase attendance by 2.4 percent. A similar intervention aimed at correcting parents’ misunderstandings about how many total absences their children have accumulated reduced absenteeism by 10 percent.

Second, policymakers must be cautious about punitive measures that may create the impression that they are cracking down on truancy but have no effect. One study, for instance, did not find any evidence that students who faced court sanctions — from $25 parental fines for each missed school day to community service and even confinement — did any better or worse in school than those who were not called into court.

Third, rather than focusing on policies that set an arbitrary threshold for how many days a student can miss before the student loses credit for a course, educators and policymakers need to focus on more effective ways to keep students engaged and feeling safe in school.

Fourth, education leaders must tackle real-life situations that cause students to miss school in the first place, such as “the strain of having to take care of younger siblings,” as D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson testified recently in the wake of the Ballou scandal.

Solutions to chronic absenteeism may not be easy to come by but they exist. But much like chronically absent students, we can’t expect those solutions to just show up. We have to be willing to find them.

Author Bios: Shaun M. Dougherty is an Assistant Professor of Education & Public Policy at the University of Connecticut and Michael Gottfried is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara