You Get What You Grade For: Chronic Absenteeism Roils California’s Public Schools

Californians are bewildered by sustained chronic absenteeism among public school students. In January of 2023, over 27,000 out of the 98,000, or 28% of students enrolled in San Diego Unified, were considered chronically absent in California’s second-largest school district. This represents a sudden, staggering increase from pre-2020 levels, which were relatively stable, going back years, at around 10-12% of the student population. The lockdown and illness era are in the rearview mirror, yet students continue to stay home in significant numbers regularly. 

Popular explanations point to RSV, COVID, and flu outbreaks. However, a few simple data points undermine that as a primary cause of this phenomenon. For example, Asian American students experience comparatively low levels of chronic absenteeism at around 11.4% of the statewide makeup, whereas 42.5% of African American students were chronically absent last year. Diseases do not discriminate based on one’s race, so other factors must be at play.  

California’s establishment educational leaders puzzled by this phenomenon have resorted to their preferred methods of analysis, typically those involving more race categorizations, leading to more technocratic-oriented solutions that give more centralized power to bureaucrats. In the wake of this fixation, much remains to be examined. 

I want to direct attention to one variable neglected from the mainstream discussion: the grading policies established by the State of California and individual school districts.  

We know that students emerging from lockdowns and virtual learning are more behind than ever, yet California is graduating more students than ever. When combined, those two considerations are worth pausing and reflecting on. The floodgates of accountability have been opened to a population of students that have suffered greatly in recent years. 

Nevertheless, they are being held to a new low standard, presumably indefinitely, and nobody is having a serious conversation about restoring accountability to lift kids up. Sadly, the student groups suffering the most are the ones who can least afford to sit on the sidelines; the homeless, the disabled, the poor, and the marginalized, who are chronically absent at ever-increasing levels exceeding 40% of their respective populations. In the spirit of pardoning the afflicted, the afflicted have been hurt more, while others who are bodily, financially, or culturally resilient continue, mostly unscathed, pulling ahead more.    

In 2020, San Diego Unified upended its grading policy to turn what was once a traditional academic grade on a 1-100 scale to an abridged 1-4 scale with many of the contributing elements removed from the grade. In perfect Orwellian fashion, this new condensed “standards-based grading” eliminates previous standards that were once factored into a student’s grade. The standard particularly relevant to the rise in absenteeism is a now missing “citizenship” grade, which previously held students accountable more holistically. 

Presently, attendance, turning in homework, and showing up on time are no longer factors in a grade. On top of this, AB 104 passed statewide, allowing students to remove D and F grades from their transcripts to only report a pass or fail grade. Both grading movements effectively lower the bar and provide an easy out for those desiring one.  

As every teacher knows, students are remarkably talented in assessing where they need to direct their time and attention to secure a desired grade. They will find the path of least resistance and execute. This is analogous to the way adults behave in the marketplace of goods, services, and jobs. 

Getting students to love learning more than they value a grade has been a perennial challenge of grading systems, which, while never perfect, did traditionally move students towards proficiency and knowledge in a way these new grading systems don’t.

Under San Diego’s new “standards-based grading,” that proficiency is often reflected in a 3 out of 4 grade. For many high-performing students, the 4 out of 4 grade has become beyond reach. For less ambitious students, the 2 out of 4 grade is rarely used as an instrument of punishment, so they, too, are incorporated into the 3 out of 4 grade holders. Therefore, we miraculously have achieved grading “equity” with this transformation of students into one shared mass of score of 3. An equal outcome has been achieved, and the graduates will move forward into the world as one body, absorbed into each other and indistinguishable from each other, regardless of who came to class.

This exemplifies how bad, ideologically driven ideas run up against the rough edges of reality quickly and decisively. If you take away the grading incentive for students to participate and learn, then you see the direct “economic” consequence of that move reflected in thousands of kids staying home.

The good news is that average daily attendance is the main variable holding those in California edu-power accountable. Districts receive funding based on attendance and cannot bleed money in the long run. Continuing to lose students to private charter schools and having huge populations of students stay home is a recipe for school district financial collapse. Accordingly, this will be addressed sometime soon.

Unfortunately, the likely path of least resistance that establishment leaders will take will not involve revising the grading policy. If we look to history, they too will enviably do what is most comfortable — lobby in Sacramento to undo this last thread of accountability they are held to with attendance and funding.

Becca Williams is the Founder of Valor Education and Board Member of Valor Public Schools.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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