The picture of student absenteeism nationwide is getting clearer, but in many ways darker.
New federal civil rights data show nearly 8 million students nationwide were reported chronically absent from school in 2015-16, representing 16 percent of all K-12 students. That’s up by a million or more students from the last national count in 2013-14, when 14 percent of students were reported as missing 15 or more days in the school year.
Chronic absenteeism has been associated with a slew of problems, including lower reading achievement and engagement in school, and ultimately a higher risk of dropping out. And the most vulnerable students in a district—homeless and foster students, those in poverty, and those with chronic medical conditions like asthma—are also the students most likely to miss school repeatedly.
The civil rights data are “a huge alarm bell that we are missing the opportunity to improve student performance by making sure students are in class so they can benefit from the instruction that we are investing in,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Attendance Works. “OCR is a call to action and a call to analysis. ... It can help us understand how large and significant a problem this is and help us see patterns in which schools and populations are most affected.”
White and Asian students were underrepresented among chronically absent students, while students of other racial groups were disproportionally more likely to be chronically absent, according to a preliminary analysis of the federal data by the Education Week Research Center.
State Absenteeism Issues
As of this school year, 36 states and the District of Columbia now measure absenteeism as a gauge of school quality in their accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act. However, most of those states define absenteeism as missing 10 percent of the school year, or 18 days of a 180-day year, while a few consider only three lost days as signaling chronic absenteeism—meaning that states may calculate their own absenteeism rates more strictly or leniently than the federal data collection does.
“I am not surprised at all that the numbers have gone up,” Chang said. “It’s so easy to miss kids, to exclude absences for suspensions or not pay attention to patterns of particular kids [missing school]. I think one of the benefits of accountability on chronic absenteeism is it gets people to concentrate more on the information and what’s being collected.”
For example, the data show the District of Columbia. had the highest chronic absenteeism rate in the country in 2015-16, at nearly 1 in 3 students. Investigations of the district a few years later found that more than a third of students who were awarded diplomas in 2017 had actually missed too much school to graduate.
New Strategies to Boost Attendance
Schools in Cleveland, Ohio, were shocked into action two years ago when they found that nearly half of all students were chronically absent from school. Efforts to engage parents, reduce out-of-school suspensions, and promote attendance in the community has helped reduce the district’s absenteeism rate to 30 percent. The video below details some of the creative pieces in Cleveland’s “all-out effort.”
Getting schools to school regularly often means providing more than just academic help to students and their families, according to new studies released this week. The Brookings Institution reported health problems and poverty can drive poor attendance, and multifaceted programs can be more effective in getting students back to school. And a new report the Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic found benefits from regular postcard check-ins and home visits with students who are having difficulty getting to school.
Alex Harwin, Research Analyst and Kavitha Cardoza, Staff contributed to this article.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.