The report card for the Nantucket school district showcases various trends and details regarding diverse topics such as school attendance, the budget, and test scores. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires that each state publish an annual ‘report card’ for every school district within the state.
One of the more interesting statistics on Nantucket High School’s most recent report card relates to chronic absences. In Massachusetts, a chronically absent student is defined as a student who misses 10% of all school days, or around 2 days a month, although this definition varies in other states. 21.9% of the Nantucket High School student body qualified as chronically absent in the most recent school year, as compared to a state average of 13.2%. That is a leap of over 8% which is far from insignificant. It’s worth noting that the overall attendance rate at Nantucket High School is essentially average, meaning that the remainder of the students attend school at a high rate.
So why is the rate so high? One contributing factor could be Nantucket High School’s demographic makeup. Across the state, Hispanics had a chronic absentee rate of 22.5%, the highest of any ethnicity, while Asians had the lowest rate, at 7.6%. Nantucket High School is 22.9% Hispanic, compared to the state average of 20.8%. Nantucket High School is also only 1.5% Asian, which is not even a quarter of the state average of 6.9%. Furthermore, African Americans have a chronic absentee rate of 16.4%. Nantucket High School also has more African American students than the state average, at 10.6% as compared to 9%. White students, who make up 60.1% of the state’s student body, but only 53.7% of Nantucket’s, only have a chronic absentee rate of 10%.
There is a way to correct this discrepancy, however, and to see if the difference between Nantucket’s chronic absentee rate and that of the state’s is simply due to demographic differences. That way is to determine how much of a difference they would logically account for. For example, if one school had 10% more White students and 10% fewer Hispanic students than the average Massachusetts school, it would be possible to find the difference between the two groups average absentee rates– 12.5%– and divide by 10 to determine that the school’s chronic absentee rate is 1.25% higher than it would be if its demographics matched that of the state average.
Applying the same idea to Nantucket, albeit with considerably more steps, it is possible to determine that while Nantucket’s rate should be higher, the difference should only be around 0.9%, rounding to the nearest tenth. Now, there are obviously several problems with this, as all data journalism has its limits. The first is rounding error, although minimal, could account for some change. The second is the problem that the data given doesn’t actually prove ethnic demographics affect chronic absenteeism, it just shows correlations. Finally, random fluctuation in the sample pool from other years to this year could lead to a significant margin of error in the starting percentages. But even accounting for a generous amount of rounding error and fluctuation, 0.9% doesn’t effect the numbers that much. Adjusting for it, Nantucket’s chronic absentee rate would be 21%, still much higher than the state average of 13.2%. Even if the rounding error was an entire percent, and fluctuation accounted for another two percent change, 18% is even then significantly higher than 13%. So it is relatively safe to say that ethnic demographics don’t account for the chronic absenteeism rate.
What does, then? It is possible the district report card, or less likely the state average, was incorrectly tabulated? Neither option sounds exceedingly plausible. The program is mandated by the federal government, so making sure it was accurate would be a priority. The information is critical in determining whether the state will step in and offer aid to the school district to set it back on course.
High school principal Dr. Buckey suggests there might be an error earlier in the reporting process. “Part of improving our rate is making sure we are accurately reporting our data,” he says.
Another possibility is the simple fact that Nantucket is an island. Boats are canceled, flights delayed, vacations accidentally– or intentionally– extended. Medical procedures or appointments that would normally not take up much school time can lead to missing an entire day of school, or more, as can other important events that would normally take only an hour or two. While this is almost certainly a factor, it’s hard to tell if it could make up the difference.
Buckey agrees with this view, saying, “I think our geographic reality contributes to chronic absenteeism. A good example is medical appointments. On the mainland, a student who needs to see a specialist could go to the appointment and then return to school. On island, a student has to take the entire day or multiple days to go off for specific medical appointments. The same for college visits and some field trips.”
For whatever reason, Nantucket High School has higher chronic absenteeism than the state of Massachusetts at large. Whether it’s because of demographics, geography, inaccurate reporting or something else entirely, it’s something to be aware of.
“We have made attendance and how we report days absent a priority this year,” Buckey says.
By JohnCarl McGrady