The recent release of the first-ever national, chronic absence data set by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reveals that this promise is broken for far too many children. More than 6.5 million students, or about 13 percent, missed three or more weeks of school during a single school year, which is enough time to erode their achievement and threaten their chance of graduating. Over half were in elementary or middle school. Students from communities of color (African American, Native American, Pacific Islander and Latino) as well as those with learning disabilities were disproportionately affected.
A new study, Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence, analyses the OCR data, combined with statistics on poverty available from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics.
- Across the United States, chronic absence at varying levels affected the vast majority of school districts (89 percent) in the country. Districts with chronically absent students reported numbers ranging from two to 72,376 students.
- Half the chronically absent students are, however, found in just 4 percent of the nation’s school districts and 12 percent of its schools. These 654 districts are spread across 47 states and the District of Columbia. » This trend of large numbers of chronically absent students affecting a handful of districts also holds true for states. In fact, 10 percent of the chronically absent students nationwide can be found in just 30 districts in two states with very large student populations, California and Texas.
- Some of the places with the largest numbers of chronically absent students are affluent, suburban districts known for academic achievement. For example, Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., two suburbs of Washington, D.C., each have more than 20,000 chronically absent students. While their absence rates are close to the national average, the large numbers reflect the sheer size of the districts and their growing populations of low-income students.
- Districts serving disadvantaged urban neighborhoods with high rates of poverty typically have both high rates and large numbers of chronically absent students. In these places, which are also highly segregated communities of color, chronic absence reflects a web of structural challenges that includes the lack of adequate affordable housing, limited access to health care and the absence of well-resourced schools. Children may also suffer from exposure to violence and environmental pollutants, making regular school attendance more difficult. Cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia report that more than a third of students are chronically absent.
- Many small, poor rural school districts have few students, but face extremely high rates of chronic absenteeism. While most of the districts with large numbers of chronically absent students are urban and suburban, the majority of districts reporting rates of 30 percent or higher are rural and town districts. Transportation and other challenges related to poverty can keep students from getting to school regularly in remote areas.