School & District Management

Early Patterns of Chronic Absenteeism Threaten Academic Success, Groups Say

By Evie Blad — September 01, 2015 3 min read
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Conversations about chronic absenteeism generally center on unexcused absences in later grades, but a pattern of absences as early as kindergarten—even excused ones—can throw students off-track academically and form patterns that challenge later success, two organizations said in a research brief.

“Essentially, these early attendance gaps turn into achievement gaps that create graduation gaps,” said the report, released Monday night by Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign. “Poor attendance is among our first and best warning signs that a student has missed the on-ramp to success and is headed off track for graduation. We must address attendance and its connection to public health early in a child’s life.”

The organizations have been among those arguing that high rates of absenteeism from school can serve as a proxy indicator that a child’s non-academic needs are not being met. Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year, can be caused by family stressors, or health issues such as asthma, dental problems, or mental illness.

Many schools track how many students are present each day without focusing on the attendance patterns of individual students, which can be useful for catching problems early, the report says. Early warning systems that provide “actionable data” may help educators address problems before they snowball into larger patterns, it says.

“Across the country, an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students are missing nearly a month of school and suffering academically for it,” the report says. “The problem starts early: At least 10 percent of kindergartners and first graders miss that much school, absences that can stall their progress in reading and deny them an equal opportunity to learn. Chronic absence flares again in middle and high school, when it becomes an early warning sign that students will drop out. Children from low-income families and communities of color, and those with disabilities are disproportionately affected.”

The report uses several data sources to track who is most likely to be chronically absent, and it synthesizes research on how those absences affect academic achievement. Attendance Works released a similar report last year that found that students with poor attendance in the month before taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress scored significantly lower on the test than their peers who had no absences in that time frame.

So how should educators and policy makers address attendance issues?

Among the suggestions included in the report:

  • Advocates should prove that chronic absenteeism is an issue by collecting detailed data at the state and local levels, and make the case to community groups, parents, and philanthropists that attendance should be a priority by explaining research on its link to academic achievement.
  • Schools should tackle absences by determining their causes, the report says. Some advocates have suggested schools can help address those issues by meeting students’ non-academic needs through community partnerships and school-based health centers.
  • States should use data to search for schools and districts with unusually high attendance rates, particularly for at-risk groups, and they should seek to build on successful strategies.
  • Schools should track attendance patterns of individual students to intervene early.

“It’s not enough to say we have an absenteeism problem,” Attendance Works Director Hedy Chang said in a press release. “We need to know who is missing too much school, when and where absences are mostly likely to occur and why students are chronically absent. This information is essential to targeting the right resources so we turn around poor attendance, especially for the students most at risk.”

Further reading about attendance and whole child issues:

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

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