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Policy to Practice: Attendance Counts and Engagement Matters

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October 23rd, 2020

For many districts across the country, this is the time of year for enrollment audits, or “count days.” While the practice of taking a snapshot of attendance at the beginning of a school year may not be perfect, actual counts typically fall closely in line with enrollment projections. But of course, not much about this year is typical.

New data from NPR has revealed troubling trends, particularly among large urban districts, with enrollment dipping far below what was expected. Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, is down 11,000 students, and Miami-Dade County Public Schools has reported an enrollment decline of 16,000. According to NPR’s report, the starkest differences have been seen in kindergarten enrollment, with most recent estimates showing an average 16% difference from pre-pandemic projections nationwide. And while some charter, private, and virtual schools are seeing enrollment increases right now, experts fear it is still imbalanced and many children are going unschooled entirely.

As Marguerite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University explained, such significant shifts in enrollment can have major implications for school funding and resource allocation. But even more concerning is the potential impact on student outcomes.

The importance—and elusiveness—of attendance

In their recently-revised Attendance Playbook, experts from FutureEd and Attendance Works make it clear that students’ attendance and engagement are directly correlated with achievement. And as the Brookings Institute put it, being present “in school” is a basic building block of student success. Prior to the pandemic, research showed that for every week high school students are absent, their chances of graduating dropped by 20 percentage points. Studies have also proven that absenteeism is a particularly pervasive threat to the success of students from systemically-disadvantaged backgrounds. To curb this trend, 36 states included Chronic Absenteeism as the fifth indicator of ESSA plans and many districts are working to track data in real time to monitor trends and guide interventions.

In normal times, attendance is relatively easy to quantify and a student’s physical presence in the classroom suffices when it comes to assumptions of engagement and interaction with teachers. This year, however, what constitutes attendance is much harder to determine in remote and hybrid models. States and districts have been busy developing unique policies and defining expectations. Texas, for example, released this SY20-21 Attendance and Enrollment FAQ document last week. In its Return to Learn legislation passed in August, Michigan revised attendance requirements and calculations to align with the current context of COVID-19. California took similar actions this summer with the passage SB 98.

Building best practices

Still, as a Promising Practices Brief sponsored by the US Department of Education noted, there are no established, universal definitions for attendance or student engagement in these times. As a result, there is also limited awareness of best practices, and few functional tools available to implement them.

So what can educators do? While we are all still learning how to navigate this school year, there are some strategies that administrators and teachers can leverage to bridge the gaps between the physical presence in a classroom we were so used to, and the distance and hybrid models many districts are following now.

1) Actively promote engagement by connecting in new ways with students.

In the Promising Practice Brief, which analyzed existing research on virtual teaching and learning and applied it to current COVID-19 responses, the authors emphasized that under the right conditions, remote environments can offer some advantages to traditional brick-and-mortar settings. Specifically, they point to balancing synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences and utilizing a variety of strategies, such as online discussion forums, small-group breakout sessions, and performance tasks or projects. The authors also encourage educators to seize opportunities for meaningful formative feedback and facilitated reflection aligned to student goals. Moreover, while they encourage the use of different forms of instruction and communication with students, they cite research which suggests the frequency of touch points with teachers in remote learning environments is more important than the type of communication or tool used.

2) Establish a system to easily monitor and track interactions and participation.

Guidance and mandates in some states, like California, Michigan, and Texas, add clarity to how districts are expected to report attendance and participation. However in most cases, tools are not provided for educators to actually enter or track the required data. In its Implementation Guide to the Attendance Playbook, Attendance Works affirms that districts must have the infrastructure and resources, such as technology to input data and monitor effectiveness, in order to reduce chronic absenteeism and increase attendance. Districts should seek solutions that offer seamless data collection and dynamic visualizations, such as the Distance Learning Engagement Report available in Illuminate’s DnA platform.

Dr. Dan Sosa, Director of Research, Assessment & Evaluation/Technology Services at Riverside Unified School District shared that when the report was implemented in his district, it “helped us answer the questions that we knew the Board was going to ask: Which students were participating or engaged? Which students weren’t, and what were likely some of the factors for the students who weren’t engaging? Beyond that, we’re able to filter down to see vulnerable student groups and school or grade-level groups to identify the students who hadn’t participated in X amount of weeks.” Regardless of specific state policies, these are the questions that educators must be able to answer in order to identify students at risk.

3) Implement early warning systems and intervene early.

Once districts do have a functional system for tracking student attendance and engagement, it’s critical that the data is intentionally and frequently analyzed to spur action. Attendance Works and FutureEd highlight the effectiveness of early warning systems that can combine attendance data with other indicators for whole child data profiles and proactive risk identification. Districts must establish or recalibrate existing early warning systems to align with remote or hybrid learning environments. And, it’s essential that those systems connect to the district’s overarching MTSS processes to truly drive data-informed practices.

As an article from The 74 Million explained, we likely won’t have a clear picture of enrollment and student mobility for several months. And even then, transition should be expected for quite some time after. Given the undeniable link between attendance and achievement, it’s critical that districts implement systems to track engagement and intervene early.


Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Button on October 23, 2020 at 10:04 am

    I like this webinar. It touched on some very important issues.

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