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Senate- and House-proposed elementary school accountability plans miss an opportunity to prioritize K-3 school quality and student success

The recently-released Senate and House budgets would amend North Carolina’s school accountability system to align with new federal requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Both budgets miss an opportunity to include a measure that meets the rigorous ESSA requirements, serves as an early warning system to bring focus and resources to the early grades, and is actionable at the state, district and school levels – chronic absenteeism.

Other states are building this important measure into their accountability systems. Of the first 11 state draft ESSA plans submitted to the federal Department of Education, 9 of them propose chronic absenteeism as a measure.

ESSA Requirements

ESSA requires that state accountability systems use multiple data indicators to provide a more whole-child view of school success. States may propose their own indicators, but they must be:

  • The same for all public schools
  • Valid, reliable, and comparable
  • Disaggregated by subgroups

The indicators for elementary schools must measure each of the following:

  • Academic achievement
  • Academic progress
  • Progress in attaining English language proficiency
  • At least one state-selected measure of school quality or student success

NC Senate-Proposed Indicators 

The accountability system proposed in the Senate budget would define the indicators as follows for North Carolina elementary schools:

Measures of Academic Achievement:

  • Proficiency on annual assessments for mathematics in grades three through five.
  • Proficiency on annual assessments for reading in grades three through five.
  • Proficiency on annual assessments for science in grade five.
  • The rate of promotion from the third grade to the fourth grade within four years of a student entering kindergarten.

English language proficiency indicator:

  • Percentage of students who progress in achieving English language proficiency on annual assessments in grades three through five.

Measure of school quality and student success:

  • The growth score earned by schools. The growth score would be a composite measure of student growth on the academic achievement indicators noted above.

ESSA requires measurement of academic progress and at least one state-selected measure of school quality or student success. The Senate-proposed plan appears to use the school growth measure for both of those requirements.

The Senate-proposed indicators of academic achievement, school quality and student success measure only third through fifth grades. Research tells us that academic achievement measures are not developmentally-appropriate for younger children. To capture the experience of K-2nd graders and focus needed attention on school quality and student success in those early grades, a non-academic measure like chronic absence is needed.

NC House-Proposed Indicators 

The accountability system proposed in the House budget would calculate separate Achievement and Growth scores and A-F grades for each school.

To calculate the School Achievement score, the House proposes to assign NC elementary schools points based on the following indicators (which are nearly identical to the Senate’s proposed measures):

  • Percent of students scoring at or above proficiency on annual assessments for mathematics in grades three through five.
  • Percent of students scoring at or above proficiency on annual assessments for reading in grades three through five.
  • Percent of students scoring at or above proficiency on annual assessments for science in grade five.
  • Percent of students who are promoted from the third grade to the fourth grade within four years of a student entering kindergarten.
  • Percent of students who progress in achieving English language proficiency on annual assessments in grades three through five.

In addition, schools would get Achievement points for offering courses in:

  • Arts disciplines, including dance, music, theater and the visual arts
  • Physical education and Health
  • World languages

The House proposal appears to use these measures of which courses a school offers as the ESSA non-academic measure of school quality and student success. While these measures would provide some data on the school environment offered to children under grade three, the House plan does not include a measure that would get at whether students are effectively accessing those offerings. Chronic absenteeism as a measure could answer that question.

Why Chronic Absence is a critical indicator to track

Chronic absence is an early warning indicator. Chronic absence data can reveal that a student needs help long before test scores or grades do. Using chronic absence as a trigger for early interventions could be an important strategy for closing the achievement gap for low-income children and affected racial minorities. 

Chronic absence puts focus on the early grades. Since students are not tested until the third grade, many district accountability systems largely ignore the early grades (PK-2). An indicator like chronic absence, which can be measured for all children, shifts some focus to the early grades. Including the early grades in measurements of school quality encourages investment and continuous improvement in early learning.

Chronic absence data is actionable to improve student outcomes. States and districts can use chronic absence rates to identify schools and districts that need support and technical assistance. Districts and schools can analyze their chronic absence data, combined with student, parent and/or teacher surveys, and use the results to support parent and teacher engagement. Data can help them better understand students’ barriers to attendance, work with families and community partners to remove those barriers, request resources, and communicate the importance of daily attendance.

Chronic Absence is supported by the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Measures of Success Framework. North Carolina state leaders – working with a Data Action Team composed of 30 experts from NC’s leading universities, research institutes, government agencies, and think tanks – identified shared birth-to-eight, whole-child measures of success to put children on a pathway to grade-level reading. The NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative is creating partnerships among the state’s early learning and education, public agency, policy, philanthropic and business leaders to define a common vision, shared measures of success and coordinated strategies that support children’s optimal development beginning at birth.

For more on using chronic absenteeism as an ESSA indicator and for an interactive map of disaggregated chronic absenteeism data by school district, visit http://buildthefoundation.org/chronic-absenteeism/.

Mandy Ableidinger

Mandy Ableidinger is the NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Deputy Director.