In 2008, the Legislature directed the Institute to study the truancy provisions of the 1995 "Becca Bill." The bill changed several aspects of the compulsory school attendance laws in Washington. In particular, the bill requires that school districts file truancy petitions in juvenile court when students accumulate a specified number of unexcused absences.
From a policy standpoint, it is of interest to know whether the Becca truancy laws have had a causal impact on key student outcomes, such as graduation rates.
Unfortunately, despite our best attempt to analyze this question with rigorous statistical methods, we cannot provide a scientific answer as to whether the law is having a positive, negative, or no effect on student outcomes. Sometimes research can provide answers to central questions, and sometimes it cannot; this is a case of the latter.
The 1995 Becca laws were implemented statewide and a random assignment study—the type of study offering the best scientific evidence—was never possible or envisioned. In addition, the historical data available for our study do not allow us to measure a vital aspect of the Becca laws: the number of unexcused absences from school. Without this information, it is impossible to employ appropriate statistical methods to study the question of the Becca Bill’s effectiveness.
We do know from our analysis that students who receive truancy petitions are at very high risk of academic failure as well as future criminal involvement. For example, of all students in Washington during the 2002–03 school year, only 20 percent of students with petitions graduated from high school by 2008, compared with 77 percent of their non-petitioned peers. Similarly, 20 percent of the students with petitions were subsequently convicted of a crime in Washington compared to 4 percent of students without petitions.
Our inability to analyze the effectiveness of the Becca Bill stems from that fact that, even before their truancy filing, petitioned students were already at much higher risk for negative outcomes. For example, prior to receiving the truancy filing, petitioned youth had a GPA of just 1.3, compared with a GPA of 2.7 for non-petitioned students. And, prior to the filing, 31 percent of the petitioned students had previously been convicted of a crime compared with 8 percent of non petitioned students.
Given these differences, and without additional information, it is not possible to identify an appropriate comparison group with which to judge—in a scientifically rigorous way—whether the Becca Bill has had the effects the Legislature intended.