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One school district massively exaggerated black student absenteeism. It ruined a national survey.

First year that districts are required to submit data to states

It’s easy to achieve the research results you want by manipulating your survey parameters. In some cases, though, you’re simply given bad data at the source.

A national survey of “chronic absenteeism” at the K-12 level, broken down by factors including race, concluded that Maryland had the highest such rate in the country based on wildly incorrect data provided by a single Maryland school district.

The 2015-2016 data from Prince George’s County, turned over to researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the Brookings Institution and nonprofit project Attendance Works, also reflected poorly on black students.

It said 80 percent of all students missed 15 days or more of school, U.S. News reports:

Because the 130,000-student district is so large and enrolls a large percentage of black students, the updated data changed both Maryland’s national ranking on chronic absenteeism – from having the highest rate in the country to having the 10th highest – and the overall figures of chronically absent black students.

The resulting report published last May said Maryland’s overall rate was 29 percent, and the national black student rate was 19.7 percent. With the correct data, Maryland’s rate plunged nine percentage points, and the national black student rate fell four-tenths of one percent.

Attendance Works didn’t explain in a Wednesday blog post how Prince George’s County made an “honest mistake” with such grave ramifications for data-driven policy.

The error shows the importance of “transparently released data” so families, communities and researchers can look for red flags in reported data, whether suspiciously high or low rates, the group said:

We believe state education agencies can prevent data errors as much as possible by offering guidance around data definitions, data collection, and reporting, and including tips for reviewing data for accuracy prior to submission. When mistakes occur, it is important to provide opportunities for schools and districts to submit corrections.

This school year is the first that districts are required to submit data on chronic absenteeism to states under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, according to U.S. News. The data will be used as a metric in “academic report cards” for districts in 36 states.

The Baltimore Sun questioned the high absentee rate for Maryland and Prince George’s County in September. A reporter pointed out Maryland’s reported rate, heavily influenced by the county, was nearly twice as high as the nation’s, yet the county’s reported data the following academic year showed only 22 percent chronic absenteeism.

Read the U.S. News report, Attendance Works post and Sun report.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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