Fix our Failing Schools? What are We Missing?

As the schoolhouse doors were getting ready to open for the 2016-2017 year, the Texas Education Agency released accountability ratings for all public school districts in Texas for the prior academic year. Performance reports showed that 31 HISD schools’ ratings changed from the dreaded “Improvement Required” rating in 2014-2015 to the higher “Met Standard” status in 2015-2016, while others still remained on the Improvement Required list and were joined by 13 additional schools that failed to meet state performance standards. A total of 40 schools received this rating. Accountability ratings are based on school performance along four indices – student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness.

Turning around persistently poor-performing schools has traditionally involved several evidenced-based strategies, such as lengthening the school day and/or school year to provide more time for instruction and learning, providing intensive interventions and supports to students who have fallen behind academically, and placing effective teachers and principals at the helm. In addition to these proven strategies, there is something else that poor performing schools have been missing. The students. Specifically, there is a relatively high percentages of students in consistently low-performing schools who are not showing up to school on a regular basis. These students are considered chronically absent.

Chronic absence, defined as 10 percent or more days of missed school instruction, and academic performance (and thus, school ratings) are related. There is mounting evidence that when children, particularly economically disadvantaged children, are chronically absent from school, they suffer academically and are more likely to drop out.  Chronic absence is one root cause of low student- achievement levels.

When students fail to meet academic expectations, schools fail to meet accountability standards. Such is the case for persistently low- performing HISD schools. For example, during the last school year, each of the seven HISD comprehensive high schools rated Improvement Required had between 20-38 percent of its student body miss 18 or more days of school. In comparison, of the 12 HISD comprehensive high schools rated Met Standard, only four of them had chronic absence rates exceeding 15 percent.

Last September we issued a special report, When Students Miss School: The High Cost to Houston, that shed light on the problem of chronic absence in HISD and its impact on reading achievement, teaching and school funding levels. We are once again raising awareness of this important issue during National Attendance Awareness Month and calling upon the community to do its part in supporting our schools’ efforts to increase student attendance rates and combat chronic absenteeism. When students show up for school, they are more likely to meet academic expectations.