Minneapolis school officials argued that switching high school students to bus passes would improve attendance, but there's no conclusive evidence that's happened so far.

Three of the five high schools that switched to bus passes when school began in August actually had lower attendance in October than the same month a year earlier. Two had slightly better attendance. Two other high schools won't switch until next school year. Overall, high school attendance was down.

That data is contained in October attendance numbers released this week by the district, three months after a Star Tribune request.

School officials promoting the switch to having students ride Metro Transit routes argued that it would help attendance because, unlike a missed yellow school bus, there would always be another bus that could deliver a student to school.

But the district administrator in charge of the switch, Robert M. Johnson, said Friday that attendance fluctuations can be influenced by other factors such as parent involvement, student motivation and even school attendance tracking.

"At this point, I'm not willing to attribute any increases or decreases to any one factor," he said.

Attendance crept up slightly this October at Patrick Henry and Edison high schools, rising by less than a percentage point. Both schools are a block or two off major bus lines.

But attendance fell sharply at North, and was down noticeably at Roosevelt and Washburn. For the district as a whole, high school attendance was down by a percentage point, including at South and Southwest, which don't switch to bus passes until next school year.

School officials have been promoting improved attendance as a way of boosting academic achievement as reflected in test scores. The district target is that 70 percent of students get to school at least 95 percent of the time, which means missing fewer than nine days in a school year. The share of students in all grades meeting that target has been edging up, but not quite two-thirds do so.

Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, said she's not surprised to see the fall in attendance without school buses. "If you don't have that dedicated service that gets kids to and from school, students make other choices," she said. The association represents private bus firms; Minneapolis relies on a mix of district and contracted private buses for elementary and middle school students who don't live near their school.

The district also made the argument that wider use of bus passes would give students the option to stay after school for activities and make it easier for them to travel to college campuses and work. Johnson said most students who used passes during the school day are using them for just those reasons.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib