Attendance and academic performance in Pennsylvania high and middle schools

Background

In 2014 and 2015, Institute Policy Briefs (Vol.14, No.17, and Vol.15, No.30) described the strong correlation between school attendance and achievement test scores in Pennsylvania, with special attention to Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS). The findings of very poor scores and high rates of absenteeism at many schools were not surprising. Years of academic studies have found the same results.

What is disturbing is that many of PPS’ schools have shown little or no improvement in rates of absenteeism since 2014.  And as the recent Policy Brief (Vol. 21, No. 37) demonstrated, the weakest performing schools have made no appreciable progress toward higher academic achievement levels.

To further study the issue of academic performance and attendance, this Policy Brief looksat the achievement rankings of schools across the state and their attendance rates.  The Brief first examines 10 highly academically ranked high schools (all in the top 5 percent (four in the top 2 percent) of the 690 Pennsylvania high schools including charters and specialty academies) alongside 10 schools ranked in the weakest performing 20 percent of all high schools.  A second comparison is made for middle schools, 10 high-ranking and 10 low-ranking.  All academic ranking and attendance data are for 2019, the latest available. 

All rankings are found in SchoolDigger’s latest assessment that uses Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test scores to evaluate each school and district in the commonwealth.  Attendance for each school is found in the Department of Education web site in the Future Ready PA section.  Attendance is measured by the new federal definition that focuses on “regular attendees” as opposed to percent average daily attendance used in the past.

Regular attendance is defined as the percentage of students who were present at least 90 percent of the 180 days in the school year. That means all the students who were absent 18 or fewer days. So, regular attendance of 80 percent means 20 percent of students missed 19 or more days.  The obvious problem with this definition is there is no publicly available data to show how many days the chronically absent missed beyond 18 days. Nor are there any data available for the days missed by those who were regular attendees. All that is known is the percentage who missed 18 or fewer days and the percentage that missed 19 or more.

It is reasonable to assume that schools with very low rates of regular attendance will also have more absentees in the regular attendance category than the schools with very high rates of regular attendance. Similarly, it is reasonable to assume that the number of days absent among students who miss more than “19 or more days” will be greater in low regular attendance schools than high attendance schools. In short, the regular attendance rate for very low attendance schools is not capturing the true level of absenteeism. To know that would require a daily count for the 180-day school year. Why that is not provided as well is unknown.

High schools

The following “best” high schools were selected. The table shows school, state academic rank and percent regular attendance.

High-ranking schools

School/DistrictState Rank Top %Regular Attendance (%)
Central H.S./Philadelphia4195.5
Peters/Peters 6191.4
Unionville-Chadds Ford/Unionville Chadds-Ford 9296.6
Lower Merion/Lower Merion 10291.6
Upper St Clair/Upper St. Clair12293.7
Great Valley/Great Valley 13292.7
Penn-Trafford/Penn Trafford 14288.8
Mt Lebanon/Mt. Lebanon18393.5
Hampton/Hampton21488.6
Palmyra/Palmyra Area23485.6
10-school average1391.8

With only two exceptions all 10 schools had regular attendance of 90 percent or higher with two over 95 percent. Note that Central High in Philadelphia, the fourth-highest ranked school, had 99.4 percent of 11th graders scoring advanced or proficient in math and 99.5 percent advanced or proficient in English Language Arts (11th graders take the Keystone Exam). A standard of excellence that should be the goal of schools all over the state. The regular attendance was 95.5 percent and that should also be the goal of every school. 

Among the 10 schools the lowest percentage attendance was 85.6 and it was the lowest ranked academically, although at 23rd Palmyra was still a very high-ranking school. Note that the state’s desired goal is 94 percent and the recent state all-school average was 85.7 percent. The highest-tier schools all had over 90 percent regular attendance.

Low-ranking schools

School/DistrictState RankBottom %Regular Attendance (%)
Brashear/Pittsburgh6072057.4
Perry/Pittsburgh635 1022.4
Milliones/Pittsburgh6391043.2
Westinghouse/Pittsburgh6421042.9
Harrisburg/Harrisburg665530.1
Strawberry Mansion/ Philadelphia669 546.1
Kensington/Philadelphia671 544.9
Chester/Chester-Upland677521.3
Overbrook/Philadelphia 682231.6
M.L. King/Philadelphia683251.6
10-school average65739.2

Schools in this table range in rank from Brashear at 607, placing it in the bottom 20 percent of high schools, to Philadelphia’s M.L. King at 683 and Overbrook at 682.

These 10 schools had regular attendance ranging from 21.3 at Chester High to 57.4 at Brashear. Note that Brashear had 67.5 percent of 11th graders at basic or below basic in math and 60 percent at basic or below in literature.  Overbrook in Philadelphia had 94.8 percent scoring basic or below basic in math and 91.5 percent basic or below in English Language Arts. Its regular attendance was 31.6 percent, meaning an abysmally high 68.4 percent of students missed 19 or more days during the year.

Two schools with the best attendance were in the 50-to 60-percent range and two worst in the low 20 percent range.  The average ranking for the 10 schools was 657 and age-regular attendance was 39.2 percent.  Thus, the very best schools had at least three times better attendance than the nine lowest-ranked schools—excluding Brashear’s 57.4 percent. Indeed, as mentioned above the ratio is probably even higher given the likelihood that “regular attendance” does not capture the true level of missed days.

But the conclusion is obvious: High academic performance in Pennsylvania high schools is correlated strongly with good attendance. And conversely, high absenteeism is associated with very poor academic achievement.

Middle schools

Nine schools with 6th– to 8th-graders and one with 7th– and 8th– graders were chosen as the top performing schools. Five 6 to 8; two 5 to 8; one 4 to 8; one k to 8 and one 6 to 12 were selected for the low performing group. Ideally, all would be traditional 6-to-8 grade middle schools but there are not enough in the 6-to-8 group to get 10 schools.  Keeping grade level ranges equal as possible is important because attendance tends to fall off in older students.

High-ranking middle schools

School/DistrictState RankTop % Regular Attendance (%)
Jefferson/Mt. Lebanon2195.3
South Fayette/South Fayette4191.9
Fort Couch/Upper St. Clair5196.6
Peters/Peters 61 96.7
Bala Cynwyd/Lower Merion9295.6
Radnor/Radnor12299
Hampton/Hampton19395
Wendover/Hempfield29 492.1
Ingomar/North Allegheny33494.5
DE Williams/Montour41592.1
10-school average1694.8

These 10 top 5 percent schools have an average academic rank of 16 and average attendance of 94.8 percent.  At Jefferson Middle (Mt. Lebanon), the number 2-ranked middle school, 79.8 percent of 7th graders scored advanced or proficient with 20.2 percent at basic or below basic on the math test and 93.0 percent advanced or proficient on the English Language Arts test. Ingomar, the 33rd-ranked school had 7th grade math test scores of 64.3 percent advanced or proficient and 35.3 percent basic or below basic. The relative difficulty of the math test is illustrated by the 86.5 percent scoring advanced or proficient on the English Language Arts test. Jefferson had 95.3 percent regular attendance and Ingomar, 94.5 percent.

Clearly, ranking at or near the top of all middle schools academically is associated with very low levels of absenteeism.

Low-ranking middle schools

School/DistrictState RankBottom %Regular Attendance (%)
Brownsville/Brownsville7042073.9
Trexler M.S./Allentown7401575.8
Francis Raub/Allentown7811073.7
Langley/Pittsburgh837560.3
Erie M.S./Erie841563.3
Camp Curtin/Harrisburg852355.4
Wagner Gen. Louis/Philadelphia859380.8
Rowland Academy/Harrisburg866254.5
Toby Farms/Chester Upland874142.3
Phoenix Academy/Lancaster879111.1
10-school average82359.1

It is noteworthy that the poorest-performing middle schools have significantly better attendance on average than the low-ranking high schools. As was noted earlier, older students tend to have more absentee problems than the pre-teen students. However, except for the outlier school, Wagner Gen. Louis with 80.8 percent regular attendance, the other schools have attendance and rank that match up closely. At a rank of 874, Toby Farms Middle 7th graders scored 11.9 advanced or proficient in English Language Arts and 0 percent advanced and proficient on the math exam, or 100 percent below basic with attendance at 42.3 percent—which is quite low for a middle school.

Brownsville Area Middle, the best of the low-performing schools ranking in the bottom 20 percent cutoff, had 73.9 percent attendance. The school’s 7th graders scored 30 percent proficient or advanced on the English test and 9.9 percent proficient or advanced on the math test and 90.1 percent basic or below basic on math.

Again, as with the high schools, low-ranking middle schools have much worse attendance numbers with five of the group at or below 60.3 percent. That means 40 percent of students are chronically absent.

Conclusion

As the Institute wrote in Policy Brief (Vol. 15, No. 30), in 2015: 

Very high rates of absenteeism in failing high schools undoubtedly reflect a lack of concern about the need to get a good education on the part of a large percentage of the students.

High absenteeism is disruptive to class work. It is almost certainly correlated with classroom discipline issues. Students who miss large numbers of days will not complete assignments; they will miss exams and be ill-prepared for the Pennsylvania achievement tests, as scores so readily indicate.

Worse still, consider the plight of the students who would like to learn but are hampered by the attitude and classroom behavior of those who show they do not care about school and likely don’t care if others are prevented from learning because of lack of decorum and discipline in the classrooms.

It must be asked: How can high rates of absenteeism be tolerated by the state inasmuch as it provides a large share of the school funding?
This Brief demonstrates once again the very strong correlation between attendance and school academic performance. That is not to say that high absenteeism is the only cause of poor education.  But it can be claimed that if students are not in school for large portions of the school year, they will be very hard pressed to keep up with class work or do well on tests.

Being in school does not necessarily mean attention is being paid or that the material is being learned.  But it surely cannot happen if students are absent. And extraordinarily high absenteeism is almost certainly connected to discipline and order problems in classrooms with high rates of absenteeism.

When will legislators and the governor demand the high absentee problem be dealt with seriously? How can spending $15,000 or $20,000 per year per student be justified when, in many schools, half or more are chronically absent?

The Problem of School Absenteeism

Many studies showing the negative effect of absenteeism on academic achievement have been carried out over the last 40 years.  Ideas to reduce chronic absenteeism and truancy have also been offered in great abundance. Apparently none of those has been able to stem the tide of what appears to be an increasingly intractable conundrum.

 

High absenteeism is associated with high dropout rates, low scores on standardized tests, poor employment prospects, and greater usage of welfare programs.  In short, not much good, and a great deal that is not good, comes from this education malady.

 

And the malady does afflict several western Pennsylvania school districts, especially high schools in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. Recent newspaper articles have highlighted some of the more severe instances of enormous levels of chronic absenteeism and truancy.  Rates of “chronic absenteeism”, which was defined as a student missing 18 days or more of school, were 30 percent or higher in Wilkinsburg and Duquesne, with Sto-Rox and Woodland Hills not far behind.  Rates of “habitual truancy”, meaning six or more unexcused absences, were greater than 40 percent in McKeesport and Wilkinsburg.  A more recent article examined the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which showed chronic absenteeism district-wide at 26 percent.

 

Indeed, there can be little doubt in the Pittsburgh schools that towering rates of chronic absenteeism in its high schools (three of the four 9th-12th grade high schools had chronic absenteeism rates of greater than 40 percent) are a key factor in the dreadful academic performance of students. Combined schools with 6th through 12th graders tend to have lower chronic absenteeism rates (except Westinghouse 6-12 at over 60 percent, and Milliones 6-12 at 45 percent) because 6th to 8th grade students tend to have much lower rates of absenteeism than high school students.

 

In suburban schools with strong academic achievement, as measured by PSSA scores or SAT results, attendance rates are quite high. For example, North Allegheny High had 96.5 percent attendance in 2013 and had 95 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced on the reading portion of the PSSA. By way of comparison, Perry High in Pittsburgh, with 82 percent attendance, had a mere 36 percent scoring at proficient or advanced in reading.  Meanwhile, the combined math and verbal SAT score at Perry averaged 772. At the same time, in Mt. Lebanon High with 96 percent attendance, the combined SAT score averaged 1132, well above the state and national average. And it’s not money. Mt. Lebanon spends far less per pupil than does Pittsburgh on its schools.

 

In the case of Perry High, 60 percent of students are chronically absent, meaning they have missed 10 percent or more of school days—18 or more days per year.  An 82 percent overall attendance rate at the school means the average student is absent 32 days during the 180 day school year.  Using an estimate of 15 days missed by those who are not chronically absent, we can calculate the average days missed by the 60 percent who are chronically absent to be 44. (To be sure, the days absent number for this group could be higher than 44 if the days missed by those not chronically absent is actually well below 15.) And of course 44 is the average, which means a sizable percentage could be missing upwards of 60 days per year.

 

We don’t know how the absences are distributed throughout the year. That is, do the chronically absent stay away a week or more at a time? Do they opt for Mondays and Fridays? Is absenteeism higher in spring than in the fall? In any case, a lot of class time is missed, assignments are not done and likely many tests are not taken, at least on time.  Indeed, how can a school hope to educate these students?

 

But more to the point, why are parents not held accountable? Are there no truancy laws? Can they not be enforced?  Obviously not enough to reduce absenteeism.

 

And this is not to single out Perry High.  Many other schools in the Pittsburgh district and in surrounding communities have attendance problems.

 

The problems presented by such egregious attendance issues go to the heart of classroom order, discipline, and learning environment. Inevitably, large amounts of resources are expended trying to offset the missed days, attempting to get students back to school, etc.  And most of all, the disruptions and the lowering of expectations for these students will have a negative effect on students who want to learn. Because many of the chronically absent will get through somehow to graduation, the entire academic enterprise suffers a loss of standards to the detriment of children who have a desire to be educated.

 

So what does the Pittsburgh school district, or other districts in the County facing the severe absenteeism problem, do to address the needs of students who want to learn? Create magnet schools that are hard to get into—often done by lottery—and involve substantial travel for many kids?  What does having one’s future determined by lottery do for a child’s view of their place in the world when they are not lucky enough to be selected.

 

There is no easy answer to fixing the attendance problem but one thing can be done and fairly quickly. Leaders should stop kowtowing to educrats and teachers’ unions and set up real choice programs for the kids and parents who want a shot at a quality education.  We have recommended a scholarship program be set up and funded by private donors and foundations to provide tuition funds to children who want to opt out of the failed public schools, especially the high schools. This would avoid legal challenges based on “diversion” of public funds arguments.

 

School board and political refusal to provide children who want desperately to have a chance at an alternative opportunity to learn is the height of arrogance and borders on immoral given the importance of a good education for a child’s future.

 

It is time to stop talking about and bemoaning the problems of absenteeism and poor quality education and do something substantive to help the students who want to learn. Perhaps helping those students will send a message to students who don’t care enough to show up for classes that other students can move on from the rut they are stuck in now.