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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Satisfactory Attendance' Measured Differently In Schools Across Montana

C.R. Anderson Middle School in Helena.
Dan Boyce
C.R. Anderson Middle School in Helena.

There’s a potential problem with how Montana determines which schools will get special assistance under the replacement for the federal No Child Left Behind law. It’s with how schools handle basic student attendance records.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, (ESS-uh) makes, “satisfactory attendance” an important measure of school performance, says Susie Hedalen, the deputy superintendent for education services at Montana’s Office of Public Instruction.

“And that’s why it’s used in most ESSA plans, including ours," Hedalen says. "However, it is recorded different across the state based on local control policies and practices.”

And during a legislative Education Interim Committee meeting in Helena Thursday, Pad McCracken, a committee staff member, pointed out that the state doesn’t give schools clear expectations for how to define attendance.

That means a student could be marked as absent in one school, but considered present in another, depending on each school’s individual  attendance policy.

“Because as ESSA requires the state to publish chronic absenteeism rates on school report cards, having standard definitions of what is absent or present would be nice to have consistent data,” McCracken says.

OPI plans on using attendance, along with test scores, graduation rates, and other school achievement data, to determine the lowest five percent of performing schools, and then give those schools additional support for a few years.

Hedalen says the challenge in writing uniform attendance standards is striking a balance that allows schools to do what they feel is best for their students, but at the same time is structured enough to provide good statewide data.

Hedalen says OPI is researching the best way to move forward and it doesn’t have any plans yet for creating a statewide policy on how schools should record whether students show up to class.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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