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How Chronic Absenteeism Affects Student Achievement

Friday, June 23, 2017 -- McKenna Wierman

Every now and again, kids are going to miss school. Whether it’s to spend a day sick in bed, for a family obligation, or simply to take a parent-approved “mental health day”, the fact is that students will rarely make it to every single day of school during the year.

But, when absences become a pattern, the negative impacts quickly add up. It may not seem like a big deal if a student is missing just one or two days of school a month, but over time, those days lost learning can lead to years of academic struggles, as well as challenges beyond the classroom.

What is chronic absenteeism?

Generally speaking, students who miss a defined number of school days, usually about 10 percent or about 15-18 days in most school districts, for any reason, are considered chronically absent. And students who are chronically absent are not only at serious risk for falling behind in school, but also become susceptible to a slew of other harmful consequences.

Why does chronic absenteeism matter?

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) used data from the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to illustrate the extent of chronic absenteeism in our nation’s schools. The data revealed chronically absent students are at a greater academic risk for missing early learning milestones, failing courses, and not graduating on time. Chronically absent students are also at a greater risk for a number of negative long-term consequences such as being more likely to experience poverty, diminished mental and physical health, and involvement in the criminal justice system as an adult.

The data also reported that during the 2013-14 school year, over 6 million students were chronically absent—that’s equal to about 1 in 7 students missing up to three weeks of school a year.

Who does chronic absenteeism impact?

The DOE report data showed that while chronic absenteeism is experienced by students of all races, ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds, students of a certain demographic tend to be reported as chronically absent more so than others:

  • Students with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely than their non-disabled peers to miss class
  • 5 percent of American Indian and 21.4 percent of Pacific Islander students miss up to three weeks of school or more
  • Black students are 36 percent more likely to be chronically absent then their white peers
  • Hispanic students are 11 percent more likely to be chronically absent then their white peers

Chronic absenteeism also occurs in every grade level, but is more common during early elementary grades and high school. In 2013-14 nearly 1 in 10 kindergarten and first grade students and 1 in 5 high schoolers were chronically absent.

While chronic absenteeism is detrimental at every grade level, it is especially concerning during the formative years. Students who are chronically absent during early elementary grades, when class time is mainly focused on developing the foundations for academic success through math and reading skills, are less likely to be reading proficiently by the third grade. This can be immensely detrimental to a child’s future academic success, and may even increase a student’s likelihood of dropping out of high school.

Likewise, chronic absence in later grades was found by one study of public schools in Utah to be a better predicator of whether students will drop out of school before graduation than test scores.

How is absenteeism measured?

When schools and districts look at absences, it’s important to distinguish between regular excused or unexcused absences and chronic absenteeism.

Chronic absence is measured differently from other attendance, in that it counts all lost instructional days out of a school year, whether a student’s absence is excused or unexcused. This is an important distinction, as regular attendance measures can easily hide a chronic absenteeism problem in a school or district.

For example, average daily attendance measures the average number of students who show up to school on a given day. Most schools report a high average daily attendance, usually around 95 percent, but this measure can hide chronic absenteeism because it does not report which students are missing and how often they miss.

Truancy rates, which report only the number of unexcused absences in a day, can also hide a problem with chronic absenteeism, since it is the number of days a student misses that impacts achievement, not necessarily the reason why. Chronic absenteeism better identifies which students are at risk for failure, allowing schools to intervene sooner.

Still, it’s important to recognize that students who are chronically absent are not always simply playing hooky. There are several reasons why a child might miss school, and they’re often outside of a student’s control. Sometimes students miss school because they must stay home and care for a loved one, are frequently ill, cannot access transportation to safely get to school, or don’t have clean uniforms, clothes, or school supplies. Understanding the various reasons why students are chronically absent has allowed both government and local organizations to take steps that will get students in class more often and give them a better chance for success.

What’s being done to combat chronic absenteeism?

Several government initiatives are dedicated to helping reduce chronic absenteeism and providing students with support to achieve greater academic and success beyond the classroom. Here are three key initiatives that are making an impact:

  • Every Student, Every Day is a national initiative that works to address and eliminate chronic absenteeism by supporting community action with tool kits of evidence-based resources.
  • My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentor Initiative is dedicated to helping reduce chronic absenteeism and providing students with support to help them better achieve academic and lifelong success. The data-driven model connects students who are chronically absent with mentors already embedded in their local community, who work to drive student success.
  • Attendance Works is a national and state initiative dedicated to promoting awareness of the importance of school attendance. They work to ensure that school districts take responsibility for accurately tracking and reporting chronic absence data, while partnering with families and communities to intervene where chronic absence is a problem.
  • Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states will require their school districts to gather and report chronic absenteeism data and in turn, be allowed to spend federal dollars to take measures to reduce absenteeism.

Research from Attendance Works indicates that not only can schools and districts impact student absenteeism rates, but that students can actually reverse their academic difficulties if attendance improves. These initiatives, and others like them, strive to make an impact on chronic absenteeism rates by educating and informing school communities on how everyone can take action and get involved. As with all challenges related to education, chronic absenteeism is an issue that requires the whole village to solve.

Interested in finding out more about how Edmentum programs can help your school or district provide flexible options to meet each student’s unique needs? Learn more about our online solutions for individualized learning, intervention, online courses, practice and preparation, and classroom assessment!