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State zeroes in on 6th-grade attendance.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Test scores are always a key factor in assessing how students are doing in school. But for sixth-graders across Lane County and the state, another measuring stick will be added soon: school attendance.

Under new state education benchmarks, middle schools will be keeping tabs on how regularly sixth-graders attend class as part of new so-called "achievement compacts."

The compacts are agreements between each school district and the Oregon Education Investment Board, a body created by the Legislature to oversee education reform. The broad goal: 100 percent of students graduating from high school by 2025.

The agreements set achievement targets for students at several grade levels. While the board set the benchmark categories, each year the districts must commit to showing a specific amount of improvement in those areas.

For sixth-graders, it will be attendance. A statewide coalition has praised the measure as a way of increasing focus on student health and the role it plays in student success.

The achievement goals aren't only a local concern; they also matter at the federal level. That's because they represent part of the state's application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind rules that call for 100 percent of students to pass reading, writing and math tests by 2014. Since few schools in the nation expect to achieve that goal and since Congress has not revised the law, the Obama administration is allowing states to waive the federal requirements if they can show students are making progress.

Under current rules, schools are judged on how well students do on tests, on the percentage of students who take the tests and on how many students graduate. The performance of students from low-income families and from ethnic and racial minority groups also counts.

Overall, attendance at schools has also been taken into account, but this is the first time it will get additional scrutiny at a single grade level.

Under the agreements, sixth-grade attendance will be just as important a criterion as third-grade achievement in math and reading and the number of credits completed by ninth-graders.

The extra focus on attendance has drawn praise from the Healthy Kids Learn Better Coalition, a statewide group of health, social services and education organizations that wants children's health to get more attention among educators.

"The main causes of absenteeism are health-related issues like illness, bullying, alcohol and tobacco use, pregnancy and mental health," coalition spokeswoman Jennifer Messenger said in an e-mail. "Encouraging schools to measure attendance, identify chronic absenteeism and what's causing it, and develop strategies to keep kids in school will help boost both student health and educational outcomes."

But there's more at play than health in tracking sixth-grade attendance, said Sarah Ames, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Education Investment Board.

The board and its advisers worried about a gap between third- and ninth-grade measures in the agreements and wanted to add another measure in between those grades to make sure students stay on track for graduation, Ames said in an e-mail.

"Sixth grade, which is often a transition year into middle school, is a good time to focus on whether students are maintaining their attendance and starting to take more responsibility for their education," she said. "But the most compelling reason it was added to the compact is the strong evidence that attendance is a powerful predictor of student success."

Research shows students who attend school less than 90 percent of the time don't do as well as their peers, said Drew Braun, director of instruction in the Bethel School District.

Under the new agreements, districts will be looking at sixth-graders with a less than 90 percent attendance rate. According to their state report cards, both of Bethel's middle schools have overall attendance rates above that floor. At Cascade Middle School, attendance last year was 93.3 percent. At Shasta Middle School, it was 95.5 percent.

But by itself, attendance is just a partial picture, Braun said.

In recent meetings with Bethel school principals, Braun has been discussing how to work with students across the four areas that predict success or failure: math proficiency, reading proficiency, attendance and behavior.

"Attendance, by itself, it's not enough for us," he said.

The state has spelled out what must be included in the achievement agreements. Now it's up to the districts to set the improvement goals they think they can achieve in the 2012-13 school year. Districts must submit their completed compacts to the state by July 2.

But that version may not be the final word. The state is still working with the federal government to refine its application for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind rules. That process likely won't be completed until late summer, state Education Department spokeswoman Christine Miles said.

ACHIEVEMENT COMPACTS

More information about the agreements is available online

Achievement compact template: rgne.ws/edachieve

Questions and answers: rgne.ws/edcomqa

CURRENT SCHOOL ATTENDANCE RATES

District report cards: rgne.ws/IEZhO4
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Title Annotation:Local News; Education benchmarks will include how regularly students attend class
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 2, 2012
Words:826
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