- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

The D.C. public school system’s truancy statistics do not accurately reflect its official account of the number of students in city schools.

Under federal No Child Left Behind Act requirements, the school system reported that it had 20,845 chronic truants and a 23.46 percent overall truancy rate last year.

If true, that would mean there were 88,853 students in D.C. schools last year. But the school system Web site (www.k12.dc.us/dcps/home.html) notes a total enrollment of 65,099 students. School system officials have not returned several calls seeking comment on the discrepancy.

A D.C. Council panel is scheduled to hold a hearing today on the school system. Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation, has said she plans to ask school officials about the reliability of their truancy statistics.

Board of Education member Tommy Wells yesterday said he plans to seek an explanation from school system officials this week.

Several city school principals have criticized the truancy data, saying the figures largely reflect problems with computer systems that keep track of students, poor record-keeping and personnel problems.

William Modzeleski, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, yesterday said it is “conceivable” that the D.C. school system has reported some truants more than once.

However, federal education officials do not analyze each school district’s truancy rates, Mr. Modzeleski added.

Mr. Wells said it’s possible that some D.C. truants have been counted as many as four times because the school system compiles its truancy data on a quarterly basis.

In some cases, the D.C. school system has reported schools having more truants than enrolled students.

At Luke C. Moore Academy, for example, the school system reported 311 “chronic truants” during the 2003-04 school year, giving the school a truancy rate of 70.3 percent — one of the highest in the city.

However, 2003-04 school system data placed enrollment at Luke C. Moore Academy at 225 students. If the school actually had 311 truants and a 70.3 percent truancy rate, its total enrollment would have been 442 students.

“It’s hard to imagine that there is good and effective management if they don’t know the data,” said Eric Hanushek, senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

“They should be paying attention to truancy, but obviously they haven’t in some overall management sense,” he said.

As reported, the District’s truancy rate far exceeds that of Prince George’s County (1.8 percent), Fairfax County (0.6 percent) and Montgomery County (0.9 percent), The Times reported last week.

However, Maryland doesn’t count students as truant until they miss 20 percent of the school year — or more than 30 days. The District labels students “chronically truant” at 15 unexcused absences. Virginia counts students as truant with six unexcused absences.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that school districts report truancy data on a school-by-school basis to a state education office and that local officials also make the data available for the public, Mr. Modzeleski said.

Still, the federal Department of Education does perform routine and periodic checks of state education offices to ensure that truancy, testing and attendance data is being reported and compiled accurately, he said.

Mr. Modzeleski said the Education Department expects to conduct such monitoring in the D.C. school system, but added that officials have not determined when that will happen.

Generally, school districts are hard-pressed to correct previous years’ faulty truancy data, Mr. Modzeleski said.

“From a broad perspective, it’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of money,” he said. “You try to correct the mistakes, and hopefully next year, you reduce them.”

He said the District isn’t the only school system having a hard time compiling truancy rates.

“It’s something we’re experiencing with all school systems and not only D.C.,” he said. “It takes a while to flush things out.”

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