I was reminded of something this week that's been bothering me for a while. My school takes attendance, of course, and then parents are required to excuse their student's absences. If a student misses class and isn't excused by their parent, their absence is marked as "unexcused." I imagine that's the way most schools do it, and I don't have a problem with that. We have a legal requirement to keep track of attendance and, more importantly, if a student starts to have unexcused absences it's often a signal that they need extra support (although excessive excused absences are also often a sign of that as well).
My concern, however, is how that translates to the teacher's grade book in some classrooms. Many teachers have classroom policies that allow for a certain number of days to make up work missed for an excused absence, and students are not allowed to make up work for an unexcused absence. That's never really made sense to me. From my perspective, an absence is an absence in terms of the learning that the student is missing. It doesn't matter whether it's excused or not, if the student isn't there, they are missing out. When a student is absent, I want them to do whatever they can to "make up" for that missed learning and, if that learning is being graded in some fashion, that should be represented in the grade book.
I've typically heard two main arguments for treating unexcused absences differently. The first is the "responsibility" argument (with it's silent cousin "punishment" tagging along). As I mentioned, I don't have a problem at all with the school noting that the absence is unexcused and perhaps checking in with the student to see if we can help. Similarly, I don't have a problem with the teacher noting that as well and having a conversation with the student. But that shouldn't impact their grade in the class. The transcript says "Algebra" (or whatever), not "responsible", or "good kid", or "complies with adult rules."
The second argument stems from the fact that, at the high school level at least, unexcused absences tend to be more prevalent on test days. Many teachers deduce that students are missing class either because they aren't prepared for the test, or because they think they might gain an advantage by taking the test later than the rest of the class. I don't doubt that that is often the case (although we shouldn't assume that), but again I don't see the justification for transferring that into the grade book. I think if anything it points out our skewed priorities when it comes to assessment. Implicit in this argument is that tests are somehow more important than learning, and that translates both into student behavior (skip the class because the stakes are higher) and teacher behavior (bring the hammer down, both to "teach the student a lesson" and to assert our authority).
I believe that as teachers we are capable of designing assessments that assess what the student currently knows, and that those assessments are equally valid if given on a different day. The student still has the responsibility to arrange that assessment time and then show up to take it. There may be some small inconvenience to the teacher because of this, but I worry about teachers who consider this inconvenience more important than assessing the student's learning and ultimately helping the student to learn. (And specifically at my school, we have a variable schedule that means that most students can find a way to come in and re-assess during a teacher's unscheduled hours, so it's not even a case of having to stay longer after school than normal - although I don't see that as a huge burden either if it's arranged in advance.)
I think this is another instance when many of us are equating compliance with learning, and assessment with accountability. They are not, and should not be, the same thing. That's not to say we ignore a student's behavior when we are concerned about how it might be impacting them, but it is to say that we don't hold their learning hostage to it. So if your policies currently penalize students for absences, and particularly penalize them extra for unexcused absences, I would ask you to reconsider those policies. I'd ask you to consider your ultimate goals for students and whether those policies actually help you achieve those goals, or whether they might actually undermine them. It's possible your policies are actually inexcusable.