With as many as 7.5 million U.S. students missing nearly a month of school each year, state education leaders have begun mining attendance data to find out how many students and schools are at risk academically and how to turn around absenteeism, according to a report released by Attendance Works.
For as long as teachers have taken the roll, schools have recorded attendance data. But most schools and districts treat monitoring absenteeism as a matter of compliance with compulsory education laws rather than a key data point that serves as a red flag that a student or school is headed off track academically. Now a growing body of research consistently shows that missing 10 percent of the school year—in unexcused or excused absences—correlates with weaker reading skills, wider achievement gaps and higher dropout rates. A study released this month showed the effects beginning in pre-kindergarten. In most school districts, 10 percent of the year equals 18 days, or just two days a month.
State policymakers in several states are now tracking attendance data more carefully and holding schools and districts accountable for absenteeism rates at all ages. Consider:
- Statewide studies of chronic absence data conducted by state leaders and advocates in Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Oregon and Utah have revealed surprisingly high rates of absenteeism and its impact on academic achievement, especially among low-income students and children of color.
- New accountability systems developed under federal waivers in Hawaii, New Jersey and Oregon include chronic absence as one of the metrics for evaluating how individual schools are performing.
- Early warning indicator systems in some states are monitoring when students miss too much school and intervening to keep them on track for graduation. Massachusetts’ system starts in first grade, while many others focus on middle and high school students.
These states have moved past the notion of using absenteeism to punish students and are using it instead to measure student engagement and predict academic trouble. We need this sort of state action to sustain and expand the progress that schools and districts are making to improve attendance and achievement.
The Attendance Imperative: How States Can Advance Achievement by Reducing Chronic Absence, describes the steps that states can take to reduce chronic absence including:
- Public awareness: Build public awareness of chronic absence and why it matters for doing well in school, graduating from high school and eventually succeeding in the workplace.
- Standard Definition: Adopt a standard definition of chronic absence (ideally, define it as missing 10 percent of school for any reason) to be used statewide and by each school district. The definition should clarify that chronic absence includes excused as well as unexcused absences (truancy), and should ensure that absences due to suspensions or children switching schools are also counted.
- Attendance Tracking: Track individual student attendance and absences in state longitudinal student databases and ensure that data are entered accurately and consistently as early as preschool.
- Chronic Absence Reports: Regularly calculate and publicly share chronic absence data statewide, providing information by district, school, grade and subgroup.
- Reports to Families: Urge districts to provide families with actionable, real-time data on their child’s attendance, as well as an alert if their child is accruing too many absences.
- School Improvement: Require district and school improvement plans to include chronic absence data and strategies for nurturing a culture of attendance, identifying causes of absence and fashioning effective interventions for chronically absent students to raise student achievement.
- Capacity Building: Ensure district leadership, educators, parents, staff of community-based organizations and public agencies have the opportunity to learn about evidence-based and promising practices for reducing chronic absence. Promote comprehensive and collaborative approaches that start with universal supports to nurture a habit of going to school every day and offer personalized early outreach for those with at-risk attendance patterns. More costly and intensive interventions involving legal action and the justice system should be used only as a last resort.
- Interagency Resource Allocation and Coordination: Use chronic absence rates to facilitate coordination among districts, public agencies, parent organizations, civic organizations, businesses, nonprofits and policymakers. Encourage joint review of chronic absence data to inform the allocation of resources (such as health services, transportation, early care and education, afterschool programming and mentoring) that can improve school attendance as well as relevant local and state policies.
The report, released during Attendance Awareness Month, also details how school districts across the country—including those in New York City and Baltimore—are improving school attendance by collaborating with health, social services and transportation agencies, as well as community nonprofits, faith leaders and businesses. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is now working with 134 communities nationwide to develop strategies for tackling chronic absence in the early grades.