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Does the Ubiquitous Attendance Certificate Really Get Students to School?

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Handing out certificates for perfect attendance is a common and straightforward way to motivate students to come to school, but new research suggests principals should tread carefully: In some cases, it can actually discourage students from putting in effort to attend.

As states and districts struggle to prevent chronic absenteeism, rewarding students for attendance has been seen as low-hanging fruit—California even requires it by law. In a forthcoming study previewed at the annual Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness meeting in Washington last week, researchers found that older students who received recognition certificates were actually less likely to continue going to school every day than students who received nothing at all.

Attendance awards are more common in elementary grades, but Carly Robinson, a Harvard University postdoctoral researcher, and her colleagues looked at their use among older students,15,329 6th through 12th graders in 14 West Coast school districts.

Eighty-eight percent of the students had perfect attendance in at least one month during the fall semester, and from this group, Robinson randomly sent letters home to some students in January. For some of these students, the letter congratulated them and awarded a certificate for their previous perfect attendance. For others, the letter offered them the chance to earn such an award if they came to school every day in the following month. The researchers believed the students who received either of the letters would have fewer February absences than students in the control group, which received no contact at all.

They were wrong. Students who received the letter offering them the chance to earn an award had no better attendance than students in the control group—and students who received an award for their prior attendance ended up 2 percentage points less likely to have perfect attendance going forward. The decline was driven particularly by low-performing students.

"We managed to design and implement an intervention that made students go to school less. We wanted to know what was going on," Robinson said. 

So why did the rewards backfire? In part, the letters might have given students a wrong impression that they could afford to coast a bit. In a follow-up online survey, Robinson asked adults to read a vignette describing a 10th grader living in a California suburb. Some of the participants also saw that the student had received the retrospective attendance award. More than 80 percent of the participants who saw the award believed the student had better attendance than his peers, compared to only 27 percent of participants who didn't know about the award. Moreover, those who knew about the award assumed the student's school had lower expectations for attendance than those who knew nothing about the award.

The findings echo those of a 2016 study of students in India, which also found using attendance rewards had no benefits, and in the long-term hurt the attendance, test scores, and confidence of low-performing students. Robinson noted that some prior studies have found benefits for rewarding students for good attendence, though these were more common among younger students, and often incorporated more collective rewards, such as class parties. Prior work has found attendance awards can have other unintended consequences, such as encouraging sick children to come to school, potentially spreading infections.

"Maybe because attendance is something that you're expected to do—and in the case of students and particularly low-performing students, it's something you don't actually really like doing—these meaningless certificates are likely just sending signals that you are attending school more than your peers, and that you're overshooting the institution's expectations," Robinson said. "I hope work like this can help schools and organizations think more critically about how and when to use their awards, and when they might backfire."

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