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NYS Comptroller

THOMAS P. DiNAPOLI

Taxpayers' Guide to State and Local Audits

State Education Department
Oversight of Chronic Absenteeism


Issued: September 18, 2018
Link to full audit report 2017-S-52
Link to 90-day response

Purpose
To determine if the New York State Education Department (Department) has taken actions to address chronic absenteeism within New York school districts. The audit covers the period April 1, 2014 through April 24, 2018.

Background
Chronic absenteeism is a widespread problem, defined by the Department as a student missing at least 10 percent of enrolled school days. Student absences, attributed to things like poor school performance, bullying, and unwelcoming school climates, increase students’ risk for disengagement, low achievement, and dropping out, among other things. Additionally, research shows that homelessness is a significant contributing factor to whether a student may be chronically absent. Researchers have estimated that the rate of chronic absenteeism for homeless students is at least double the rate for the overall student population. Traditionally, districts have collected and reported attendance data using average daily attendance (ADA), which measures the average number of students who are typically present each day. However, ADA does not identify some students who miss a significant number of days of school. By contrast, chronic absenteeism emphasizes individual student attendance by tracking missed instructional time, which takes into account both excused and unexcused absences, to identify at-risk students who may otherwise be overlooked. School districts and other local education agencies (LEAs), such as charter schools and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, report student daily attendance information, which the Department uses to calculate chronic absenteeism rates. Schools, districts, and other LEAs also maintain their own attendance information. As of June 2017, there were approximately 2,630,000 K–12 public school students enrolled in New York State.

Key Findings

  • The Department has taken steps to address chronic absenteeism in New York school districts, by encouraging school personnel to track student absenteeism and develop strategies to increase student engagement and reduce chronic absences. The Department also incorporated chronic absenteeism into its recently approved Every Student Succeeds Act plan as one of several factors that, together, will measure school climate and quality. The Department’s actions will require implementation over multiple years. Therefore, the results of some of those actions will not be evident for several more years.
  • We identified risks to the implementation of the Department’s chronic absenteeism initiatives that could negatively affect progress toward the Department’s goals of increased student engagement and achievement. For example, we identified discrepancies between student attendance data in the Department’s system and data provided by individual school districts for the 2016-17 school year, related to 89 of 200 (45 percent) students we tested.
  • We determined that variations in collecting and reporting attendance will affect the reliability of chronic absenteeism data when using it to compare districts. For example, at the high schools we visited in one district, students who are not in attendance at the morning’s homeroom period are reported as absent. In contrast, students at another high school in a different district are not considered absent until they miss more than half of the total scheduled periods in a day.
  • We also determined that certain districts were more aware of the Department’s expectations to address chronic absenteeism than others. Twenty-two percent (4 of 18) of districts we contacted did not recall key Department memos issued in 2016 and 2017, focusing on chronic absenteeism as an important issue.
  • The Department’s memos encouraged, rather than required, districts to take actions to address chronic absenteeism. As a result, districts placed varying priority on the actions suggested in the memos.

Key Recommendations

  • Take steps to ensure the accuracy of attendance data in the Department’s system used to calculate chronic absenteeism rates.
  • Ensure communications to school districts and LEAs contain sufficient detail outlining expected actions to address chronic absenteeism.

Other Related Audit/Report of Interest
State Education Department: Implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act (2016-S-28)


State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: Stephen Goss
Phone: (212) 417-5200; Email: StateGovernmentAccountability@osc.state.ny.us
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236