How Bad Data From One District Skewed National Rankings on Chronic Absenteeism
Flawed data on student absences from one Maryland school district skewed a national analysis. When the error was corrected and the analysis revised, the state dropped from having the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country to having the 10th highest rate.
The correction comes as schools around the country adjust to new requirements, created by the Every Student Succeeds Act, to report chronic absenteeism. In addition, many states have incorporated absenteeism rates into their accountability systems, which means data that many districts have only recently begun collecting will now be used for high-stakes purposes.
Authors of the analysis, from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said the error shows the importance of public access to data and the complexity of collecting and reporting data. On Wednesday, the organizations republished the corrected Data Matters report, which was originally published in September, along with a blog post explaining the revisions.
"Publicly available and easy to scrutinize data is an invaluable tool for allowing everyone—from families to policy makers—to know whether chronic absence is a problem for their schools or communities so they can take appropriate action," the authors wrote in the blog post. "It also serves another purpose. While allowing for more collaboration, insight, and a shared learning environment, making chronic absence data accessible to the public helps improve the quality of the data."
The analysis relied on data reported by school districts to the U.S. Department of Education that counted the number of students who missed 15 or more days of school in the 2015-16 school year for any reason, including illness or suspension.
Prince George's County, Md., incorrectly reported that around 80 percent of all students were chronically absent, an unusually high rate first noticed by reporter Liz Bowie at the Baltimore Sun . Upon review, the Data Matters report's authors found Prince George's County actually had a chronic absenteeism rate of about 29 percent under the federal definition, and the incorrect data was the result an unintentional reporting error. Such errors are not uncommon with federal civil rights data.
Because Prince George's County is both a large district and predominantly black, correcting the error changed both the state rankings in the analysis and the national figures for black students' rates of absenteeism. After the update, Maryland's overall chronic absenteeism rate dropped from 29.1 percent to 19.6 percent.
The revisions serve as a cautionary note as absenteeism data take on more weight in schools. As Education Week has reported previously, the Every Student Succeeds Act includes new reporting requirements for chronic absenteeism, and 36 states will now use such data in their accountability systems to measure school quality.
Supporters of such efforts say the data serve as an indicator of school quality that can be affected by all sorts of factors, from student health to discipline to engagement efforts. But some education policy watchers have cautioned the data could be gamed the way other accountability measures have been in the past.
Attendance Works recommends states provide training to districts on collecting and reporting data, and states have created a variety of methods to verify the accuracy of the data they collect.