Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers passed a law (House Bill 5) reducing high school testing and changing graduation requirements. The changes don’t fully go into effect until next school year, but one portion was immediately implemented: new attendance requirements.
Right now, all high school students must attend at least 90 percent of classes to receive credit. If they attend less than 75 to 89 percent of class, then they must create a plan with their school principal to complete missed work and lessons. If students don’t take that step, they risk failing the class or grade, and must petition the district's school board to see whether or not they can advance to the next grade level.
But under HB 5’s new attendance requirement, all students – kindergarten through 12th grade – must meet that 90 percent attendance mark.
Debbie Ratcliffe with the Texas Education Agency says the change promotes more consistent learning among students.
"It's hard for students to learn if they're not in school,” Ratcliffe says. “And if they have a lot of absences, the gaps in their knowledge make it difficult for them to earn good grades. So I think it's just another way to encourage children to be at school."
But according to the Texas Education Agency's written interpretation of laws passed in the 2013 legislative session, there's a hidden aspect to the new attendance requirement: it ensures students aren't taken out of classes for tutoring or test preparation.
The Urban Policy Research Center at UT-Austin, recently released a study finding that HB 5 could negatively affect minority students. It says the requirements are similar to a bill former State Sen. Florence Shapiro introduced in the 2011 legislative session.
"The practice of pulling students from fine arts and other enrichment classes for tutoring on the TAKS [now STAAR] has becoming increasingly widespread, sometimes for as much as half or more of the days that classes are offered,” the center’s analysis of Shapiro’s bill reads. “Students are receiving credit for classes they do not attend, and they are missing out on the valuable knowledge these classes provide."
The research center says the attendance requirement is more a clarification than a major policy change, but it may cause elementary and middle schools to more closely monitor student attendance – which for younger students is the responsibility of parents.
HB 5 does not change truancy laws – which say a parent can be charged with a criminal offense if their child has 10 or more absences within six months.