City schools CEO Andrés Alonso has vowed to begin new initiatives to combat student truancy after the city's performance on state tests showed an average achievement gap of 25 percentage points between elementary and middle school students who are repeatedly absent and those who attend regularly.
The superintendent said he would focus on student attendance, even if it means deploying central office staff to knock on the doors of students who are chronically absent — which means they miss more than 20 days of school a year.
"We are at a point now where we know that kids aren't coming to school," Alonso said. "It's a problem. We need to go the extra mile."
Data taken from the city's 2010 Maryland School Assessments — which tests third- through eighth-graders in math and reading — showed there was a 15-percentage-point achievement gap in reading proficiency and a 21-percentage-point achievement gap in math between students who were chronically absent and those who weren't. More than 5,000 students in third to eighth grade were chronically absent last year.
The city's scores overall were flat or saw modest gains this year. It was the first time the school system had analyzed the effect the amount of time students spent in the classroom had on scores.
"These are numbers we can no longer ignore," Alonso said, adding that for elementary school students the community has a "social obligation" to have them in school every day.
Alonso said the new data provided a "teaching moment" for those who think that achievement is solely about curriculum. "This [attendance] number dwarfs everything else," Alonso said. "You can talk about teaching and learning all you want. If the kids aren't in school, it's not going to happen."
Alonso said he would look for guidance and was open to any recommendation from a work group that has spent more than a year studying policies and practices to improve the city's attendance rates.
Jane Sundius, a co-chair of the work group and director of the Education and Youth Development Program at the Open Society Institute, said she was glad that Alonso put emphasis on the impact of attendance on the MSAs.
"We've known for quite a long time that test scores are better for kids who attend than those who don't," she said.
The work group's recommendations include requiring schools with high truancy rates to hire a monitor, offering students and schools reward incentives, and limiting such punishments as taking parents to court for chronically absent students.
School leaders agreed with Alonso's stance on truancy and success.
William Murphy, who has served as principal of Hamilton Elementary/Middle School for three years, said he took an approach that tells parents to "get students there and let us do our work."
The school noted proficiency numbers in the 90s in elementary grades this year, and significant gains across the board in middle school. The school boasts a 96 percent attendance rate and cut its suspensions in half in the past year. Murphy, who extended school days by 30 minutes and also offers Saturday school, said the school's success has been directly tied to the time students spend in the classroom.