Nearly two out of every 10 of Hawaii’s public elementary students missed school last year at “chronic” rates that the Department of Education says strongly indicate which kids are at high risk for falling behind and dropping out.

Eighteen percent of elementary school children were chronically absent last year, meaning they missed 15 or more days of school, according to data released Monday that outlines the first annual results of the DOE’s new so-called Strive HI Performance System.

Chronic absenteeism is just one of several metrics the new system uses to measure school-specific student performance and improvement across all grade levels. Those metrics are tallied into a total score that then determines a school’s ranking.

Some other notable findings:

  • Math and reading proficiency increased slightly to 60 percent and 72 percent from 59 percent and 71 percent. But only 34 percent of students are proficient in science last year, the first year science was factored into accountability measures.
  • Only 34 percent of 11th graders scored a 19 or higher on the ACT. (The highest score is 36)
  • Eighty-two percent of students graduated on time.
  • Though the department has reduced the achievement gap in recent years, only 55 percent of high-needs students — English language learners, economically disadvantaged students or students with disabilities — performed proficiently on state assessments, compared to 83 percent of other students.

Civil Beat chose to focus on chronic absenteeism because it offers a new and compelling way to compare schools and dissect what factors take a toll on student performance even in the early years. Chronic absenteeism — regardless of whether it’s excused or unexcused absences — is widely seen as antithetical to both immediate and long-term student achievement.

Research suggests chronic absenteeism rates often correlate with other factors such as family income, demographic characteristics and geographical location. To demonstrate how much chronic absenteeism varies across schools, here’s a look at last year’s rates from a cross-section of schools on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island:

  • Naalehu Elementary (Naalehu, Big Island): 40 percent
  • Kealakehe Elementary (Kona, Big Island): 24 percent
  • Lihikai Elementary (Kahului, Maui): 18 percent
  • Waianae Elementary (Waianae, Oahu): 34 percent
  • Hokulani Elemementary (Honolulu, Oahu): 6 percent

This year marks the first time the absenteeism data is being factored into Hawaii school accountability. And though widely seen as an important measure in evaluating ways to close the achievement gap, very few states track such data, and those that do often use different benchmarks. (While Hawaii’s 15-day threshold works out to 8.5 percent, a common benchmark is 10 percent of the year.)

“Because it is not measured, chronic absenteeism is not acted upon,” wrote two Johns Hopkins University professors in a May 2012 report. “Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered.”

Hawaii education officials say the data can help school districts better strategize on how to put all students, rich or poor, on the road to success.

The Strive HI index looks at four categories: achievement, growth, readiness and achievement gaps. Chronic absenteeism, which counts all absences except medical emergencies, is the metric the DOE is using to measure readiness at the elementary school level. Experts say focusing on that metric in the first years of school serves as an early intervention tactic that can boost readiness in later years.

The Strive HI system was approved by the U.S. Department of Education this past May as a replacement for No Child Left Behind, which the DOE says was riddled with outdated and ineffective requirements and placed too strong an emphasis on testing.

The new system, according to Hawaii school officials, provides a “more complete picture” of each public school. Unlike No Child Left Behind, goals are customized to each school complex — groups that include high schools and their feeder schools — based on current performance data.

“We redefine success by finding measures that are both our (testing) measures and measures of the real world,” said DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe in a conference call Monday. “I’m sure your doctor wouldn’t just check your temperature and say, “Oh, you’re 98.6 degrees and you’re fine!’ We weren’t comfortable with just 98.6.”

Hawaii’s focus on chronic absenteeism is reflective of a larger trend away from average daily attendance as the sole elementary-level school readiness measure — a method that experts say can actually end up masking the real problems.

“One that we’ve found is that average daily attendance can sometimes obscure what are patterns of absence by specific students,” said David Moyer, a strategic data fellow at the DOE, because “you can also have big pockets of students who’ve missed a big chunk of school.”

“There’s stuff going on under those attendance statistics that we are both concerned about and also that we feel we need to highlight,” he continued.

Average daily attendance actually varies little across Hawaii’s public schools and in large part hovers around 94 percent for most schools, according to a Civil Beat review of DOE school reports. But many of those schools could, for example, have 40 percent of its students chronically absent because different students make up that 94 percent on different days.

In other words, average daily attendance doesn’t reveal which students are most at-risk for falling off track and could benefit from targeted intervention.

Moyer emphasized that the department is leaving it up to principals and complex area superintendents to devise specific intervention strategies, whether it’s meetings with the parents, advertising campaigns or other forms of social support.

The 31-school Windward district, for example, launched a campaign this year that aims to boost student attendance and on-time arrival at school.

The so-called Be Pono campaign was created by a group of five social workers who after reviewing data realized how much attendance correlated with other performance measures, according to campaign manager Paula Wong.

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