When COVID-19 forced the mass closure of schools across the U.S. during the early months of 2020, we all wondered how—or if—students would continue to learn amid the turbulence. Seemingly overnight, educators, parents and edtech companies churned out crisis plans for remote instruction in hopes of carrying on, at the very least, until summer break.
Unsurprisingly, concerns over the expected “COVID slide” began to take shape almost as quickly as the emergency response plans, with the learning loss projected to be especially dire for those students already at risk of failure. As the weeks wore on, it seemed that many students would, thankfully, finish the school year with much of their learning intact. In fact, some studies forecast that high performers would actually see improvement in certain areas, such as reading, during times of independent learning.
Less clear was how deeply the disruption to traditional instruction would impact children who lacked access to learning technology and appropriate resources. With the expected disenfranchisement of a significant portion of their student bodies—facing numerous obstacles to learning—school and district leaders around the country feared a rising tide of chronic absenteeism.
Concerns over the long-term negative impacts of poor attendance are not new, but the pandemic casts a different light on the issue. With the many hurdles now in place between students—especially those already suffering the effects of education inequity—and the learning environment, leaders must make every effort possible to ensure that they are reaching all students.
“With the shift to remote or hybrid learning, attendance tracking has never been more critical,” says Miriam Altman, chief executive and co-founder of Kinvolved.
Through direct partnerships with K-12 school systems nationwide, Kinvolved aims to elevate student attendance and engagement by cultivating strong relationships. “Research has proven that the most effective way to prevent and reduce absenteeism is to establish a welcoming school community, which includes positive engagement, communications and relationship building between school and home,” explains Altman. This becomes a herculean task when the physical connection to school has been severed for most students.
“As school moved online,” Altman notes that in some areas, “as many as a third of students stopped attending class. Across equity lines, students were left without access to reliable wireless internet and technology, an issue that leaders have not fully resolved. Without reliable access, teachers and administration scrambled to locate and communicate with students and their families.”
Under circumstances such as these, attendance data becomes increasingly important. Once maligned as a tedious, compliance-based metric, this data may actually reveal a broader picture of the student journey than previously imagined.
Heeding the Warning Signs
“Known as the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ absenteeism is the first sign a student might be experiencing a more critical challenge in his or her life,” says Alexandra Meis, Altman’s co-founder and Kinvolved’s chief of product. “Due to the pandemic, causing shifts in school to remote and hybrid environments, experts predict that already substantial gaps in student learning by race, ethnicity and household income will only widen during the 2020-2021 school year.”
But not all hope is lost. If provisions are made to ensure equal access to education—wherever it takes place—for all students around the country, there’s promising evidence that the worst predictions can be avoided. Of course, this relies heavily on both community engagement and appropriate technology. Furthermore, it requires the collection of reliable data that is easily communicated across stakeholder groups.
As Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, wryly observes, “attendance data can help close equity gaps if schools don’t just monitor who shows up but notice who is missing.”
Operating at the local, state and national level, Attendance Works helps districts track chronic absence data and coordinate interventions in partnership with families and community agencies. “Absenteeism is a leading indicator and a cause of educational inequity,” says Chang. “If we want students to have an equal opportunity to learn, we need to have data that helps us understand where there are barriers to showing up.”
Redefining Student Attendance
And showing up means being able to access and engage with learning material. “As a result of COVID-19, the ways that we need to take attendance have dramatically expanded. School staff don’t just mark if a student physically shows up to class, they also must monitor for participation in virtual and asynchronous learning,” Chang explains.
Given recent changes to the learning environment brought on by the pandemic, attendance is being redefined by many schools and districts. There is a growing need to report on student activity more holistically. A binary data capture system that fails to incorporate measures of engagement and participation no longer suffices to characterize a student’s presence at school.
From California to Connecticut, legislation is being written and revised to specifically tie attendance to learners’ documented interaction with instructional material. Yet, these shifting, multidimensional measures make the act of taking attendance considerably more complex.
“Across the country, districts are utilizing different strategies, tracking ‘meaningful interactions’ with students,” explains Altman. This means that attendance may be based on the completion of assignments or tracked via online portal logins or forms filled out by students themselves. But in some cases, no attendance tracking whatsoever is taking place. Altman’s concern over the lack of clarity and consistency among these approaches is palpable. Both she and Chang point to the fact that new attendance policies can vary dramatically from one district to the next, and many of them are under constant revision, as decision makers react to the ever-changing realities of the pandemic. “It’s actually a bit difficult to know what is in place,” confesses Chang.
Such a complex problem demands a sophisticated solution. Accurate monitoring of student performance during remote instruction requires the frictionless interaction of disparate technology platforms, each gathering, analyzing and sharing data automatically to inform the full student report. Enter interoperability.
Making Sense of Data
“With the factors stacked against many of our highest need students and families, interoperability is more important than ever before,” says Meis. “Systems must be designed to speak with one another so that schools and districts can more readily identify at-risk students and intervene in a timely manner. Seamless interoperability enables educators and administrators to have easier access to what has become a very complex data point, attendance. Data is often not ‘user friendly’ or readily accessible to teachers, administrators and support staff who need it the most.”
Chang sheds light on how, specifically, interoperable technology may be leveraged to combat ongoing concerns: “Attendance and absence data, historically, have been maintained as part of student information systems (SIS). But now, especially for asynchronous learning, much of the information about participation (e.g., submitted assignments, logging on to watch a video, etc.) is in learning management systems (LMS). Capturing attendance across in-person, synchronous virtual and asynchronous settings requires taking data maintained in an LMS and making sure it can populate attendance fields in an SIS. Interoperability can help ensure the collection and analysis of data across multiple modes of instruction so that schools and community partners can reach out, engage and support students as soon as they begin to miss too much school.”
But this goes well beyond simply capturing attendance data. Interoperability can—and should—enable a full educational ecosystem.
“When students can easily log in to education software, they gain access to a world of opportunities that help to personalize learning and deepen engagement,” enthuses Mohit Gupta, product manager of analytics and student participation at Clever.
A champion of the interoperability movement if ever there was one, Gupta is blunt: “Clever couldn’t exist without interoperability. We bring all of a school’s learning applications into one secure portal and provide a single sign-on for everyone in the district. Our products leverage a wide variety of technical open standards to make edtech interoperability seamless, simple and secure.”
Echoing a familiar sentiment, Gupta explains that “participation and engagement are critical predictors for attendance and student achievement. But opportunities can be blocked if students forget their passwords or can’t access their apps due to out-of-date class rosters,” to name just a couple of the potential problems.
Reflecting on the current situation, he says, “the shift to remote learning has forced school staff and district leadership to rethink engagement in the classroom. Districts need to know definitively if a student is unable to access learning resources so they can help them keep learning.” The importance of this access cannot be overstated. As we’ve seen, engagement with learning resources may be the primary means by which attendance is measured for some students.
“Interoperability makes it possible to combine reports from different systems, keep track of student participation and plan interventions and improvements to remote learning plans,” Gupta adds. “With a multitude of resources available, interoperability also simplifies the student edtech experience and increases access to resources.”
There has never been a more urgent need for interoperable solutions in schools. For students, it offers the promise of increased access to learning opportunities and deeper engagement with instructional resources. For educators, it can provide reliable tracking of a multitude of data points, which in turn improves communication across stakeholder groups and enables effective interventions when problems such as chronic absenteeism emerge.
The pandemic has forced an overdue revolution of the education ecosystem, bringing to light many concerns that must be addressed immediately and appropriately. Just as the causes of educational inequity are varied and inextricably woven together, the solutions, too, need to be multipronged and networked.