Student Well-Being

Chronic Absenteeism: These Schools Struggle With a Big, Often Hidden, Problem

By Evie Blad — September 01, 2017 3 min read
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When a large number of students miss school regularly, it affects learning for everyone, even the kids who show up, a new analysis says.

More than seven million students nationwide missed 15 or more school days during the 2013-14 school year, the most recent federal data on chronic absenteeism show. But the problem is especially concentrated in a small portion of schools, according to the report by Attendance Works.

At 11 percent of U.S. public schools—about 10,000 schools—more than 30 percent of students missed at least 15 days for any reason, including suspensions and excused absences, the study says. At an additional 10,000 schools, between 20 to 29 percent of the students missed at least 15 days. The problem is most severe in high schools, a quarter of which struggle with “extreme chronic absence.” And the proportion of schools dealing with extreme chronic absence levels varies widely between states, the analysis says.

The report is accompanied by a state-by-state analysis of chronic absenteeism.

Why Chronic Absenteeism May Go Unnoticed

Even smaller percentages of chronic absences are a problem, Attendance Works says. The organization defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more school days for any reason, even illness, discipline, or excused absences.

It’s a problem that can fly under the radar, researchers say. That’s because many schools focus heavily on daily attendance rates, which may look fine. But an attendance rate of 95 percent is a problem if the same 5 percent of students are consistently missing school.

And absenteeism levels like those uncovered by the Attendance Works analysis can lead to disruption for all students.

“When chronic absence reaches high levels in a classroom or school, all students—not just those with too many absences—may suffer because the resulting classroom churn hampers teachers’ ability to engage all students and meet their learning needs,” the study says. “And while urban areas and high schools typically have the largest percentage of students missing school, the problem also exists in rural, town and suburban districts as well as in elementary and middle schools.”

When the problem is that severe, it takes a broad approach to solve it, Bob Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who leads the Everyone Graduates Center, said in a statement. Because a variety of behavioral, health, and family issues can contribute to students missing school, solutions must address a wide variety of factors, the organization says.

“The size of the challenge can inform the level of resources needed,” Balfanz said. “Reducing chronic absence begins with universal prevention for all students, providing early intervention as soon as a student becomes chronically absent and turning to intensive supports as needed. Addressing higher levels chronic absence typically requires a community-wide approach.”

New Data, New Solutions

The report finds promise in a growing volume of data about students who consistently miss school. The analysis is drawn from a trove of new federal data first collected as part of the most recent civil rights data collection.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law, also requires schools to monitor and report chronic absenteeism. In addition, some states have plans to incorporate absenteeism into their school accountability systems.

Attendance Works encourages schools to probe that data to identify trends and make plans to address them. The report includes profiles of cities that have raised attendance rates through publicity campaigns, mentorship, and targeted outreach to families.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.