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How Chronic Absenteeism Affects Student Achievement

How Chronic Absenteeism Affects Student Achievement

Every now and again, students 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 of 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 to 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 of falling behind in school, but they also become susceptible to a slew of other harmful consequences.

Why does chronic absenteeism matter?

report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) used data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2015–16 school year to illustrate the extent of chronic absenteeism in our nation’s schools. The data revealed that 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.

A summarization of 2021 Attendance Works report states: “Prior to the pandemic, 8 million students in every state and at every grade level, missed 10% (or nearly a month) of school in 2017–18 school year, according to the most current data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s EDFacts initiative.” That’s equal to about one in six students missing up to three weeks (15 days) of school a year.

Since the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted student attendance and even affected how schools across the nation have been able to record daily attendance. It’s not currently known how disruptions caused by the pandemic have impacted chronic absenteeism rates among students, but some early data suggest that chronic absence is likely to have dramatically increased, potentially growing from one out of six to one out of three students.

Who does chronic absenteeism impact?

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. Chronic absence disproportionately affects students and schools in high-poverty areas, and Attendance Works believes that it hit hardest among communities that have been especially affected by the pandemic, including Black, Latino, and Native American students; students living in poverty; students with disabilities; and English language learners.

Chronic absenteeism also occurs in every grade level, but it is more common in high school. According to the Attendance Works chronic absence report: “High schools are even more challenged. The most recent and accurate data shows that half of all high schools in the US have either extreme or high rates of chronic absenteeism. In nearly a third of high schools (31%), at least 30% of students are essentially missing a month or more of school.”

How does chronic absenteeism impact student achievement?

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 3rd grade. This can be immensely detrimental to a child’s future academic success, and it 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.

The added impact of the pandemic on absenteeism could also have lasting effects on student achievement. According to a June 2021 research brief from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), districts serving traditionally marginalized students faced lower attendance rates and a higher rate of enrollment loss in 2020–21. These disparities may exacerbate gaps in achievement that existed prior to the pandemic.

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 reported 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, because the number of days that a student misses overall impacts achievement, independent of the reason  of the absence. 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; contract frequent illnesses; cannot access transportation to safely get to school; don’t possess clean uniforms, clothes, or school supplies; or cannot obtain access to the Internet or technology for virtual learning. 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 initiatives are dedicated to helping reduce chronic absenteeism and providing students with support to achieve greater academic and success beyond the classroom. Here are a few initiatives that are making an impact:

  • Attendance Works is a national and state initiative dedicated to promoting awareness of the importance of school attendance. The organization works to ensure that school districts take responsibility for accurately tracking and reporting chronic absence data, and it partners with families and communities to intervene where chronic absence is a problem.
  • Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to report chronic absenteeism data, and school districts are 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 also that students can actually reverse their academic difficulties if attendance improves. These initiatives, as well as 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 you can better address chronic absenteeism in your school or classroom? Check out this blog post with 11 quick tips to get you started.

This post was originally published June 2017 and has been updated.