Memo from teachers: We can't teach 'em if they're not here

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 4:37 p.m. MDT

In Utah, 13.5 percent of students are chronically absent, yet schools and teachers are required by law to give state-mandated tests to at least 95 percent of their students -- and then hope they pass them even though they've been absent.

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I’m not a school teacher, but if I were, I would write a letter that went something like this:

Dear parents;

Do us a solid and kick your kids out of bed in the morning. Tell them to slide into those skinny jeans and their Vans and get to school. Our jobs and your kids’ future depend on it.

This seems like a good time to mention this: September has been declared School Attendance Awareness Month. In Utah, 13.5 percent of students are chronically absent, which is defined as absent 10 percent or more. Fine, you say. If kids don’t want to go to school, if parents can’t convince them to go to class, if all they want to do is sit around and play Halo, let them suffer the consequences.

But that’s not the way it works.

Students miss the class, educators pay the consequences. State law requires us to give proficiency tests in math, science and language to at least 95 percent of our students. If not, teachers and schools are penalized.

Let me put it in simple terms: If students aren’t here, we can’t test them. You should see us scramble at the end of the school year trying to track down kids we haven’t seen in school. It looks like a telethon, with teachers calling kids they might barely know just to get them to take the test. One high school actually dispatched a police officer to round up kids to take the test. Pretty silly, huh? Isn’t that the parents’ job?

Even if we do get these kids to take the test, their chances of scoring well on the test are pretty remote — SINCE THEY HAVEN’T BEEN ATTENDING CLASS.

The funny part is, there is little motivation for kids to take the test or pass it. He/she can still graduate or be promoted to the next class regardless. Only the school and the teachers feel any repercussions.

Earlier this month, 855 schools in the state received their first grades under a new state law that requires the testing. Yep, it’s backward — teachers and schools get report cards now. Only 11 percent of the schools received an A; 45 percent a B; 30 percent a C; 10 percent a D; and 4 percent an F. That’s 14 percent receiving a grade of D or worse!

The scores are based on students’ proficiency on the state-mandated tests. Missing the test results in an automatic F.

“We were calling kids who have never been in class and had never learned anything so we could get them to take the test,” a high school counselor told me. “We are double-punished if they won’t take the test AND can’t pass it — and they can’t pass the test because they haven’t been here.”

“We spend day upon day upon day trying to find kids who haven’t taken their tests,” says another high school teacher. “Every teacher in the building gets a list of those kids. It’s ridiculous. The bottom line is teachers are held accountable for students who do not attend school.”

Who knew it was the teacher’s job to round up kids like a football recruiter? But no or low test scores for students hurts their teachers’ evaluations, usually leading to changing their teaching techniques and perhaps professional development courses.

“You can’t fire the kids, but the teachers are being evaluated on kids who aren’t coming,” says one teacher in the Salt Lake School District. “And no one’s making them come.”

This teacher did some of his own research and discovered that among the kids who missed four or fewer days in a quarter, 79 percent passed all their classes; students who missed between five and seven days per quarter averaged 1 ½ F’s. According to the Attendanceworks.org website, “A growing body of research shows that missing 10 percent of the school year correlates with weaker reading skills, wider achievement gaps and higher dropout rates.”

“Seat time is important,” says another high school teacher. “Kids can go online and take the same courses, but the numbers doing that are so small, it should not be included in the discussion. The primary delivery system is the teacher in the class.”

Let’s let another high school educator have the last word: “I don’t think the legislature wants us to look good; otherwise, they wouldn’t do this. Look, I’m all for accountability — I want good teachers and I want them rewarded — but to give them a grade based on these things is ridiculous.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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