Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Not All School Attendance Data Are Created Equal

By Russell W. Rumberger & Michael Gottfried — June 07, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than 7 million school children in America are absent more than 10 percent of the school year. The problem has garnered increased attention from local, state, and federal officials, including President Barack Obama. In February, the Obama administration launched an initiative to raise awareness and to help solve the problem with the use of student mentors.

One reason for the increased focus on this issue is the growing body of research documenting the detrimental impact of chronic absenteeism. Students who are more frequently absent from school have weaker performance on state exams, higher odds of grade retention and dropout, reduced psychological development, increased problem behaviors, higher chances of alcohol and drug use, and lower employment prospects. These outcomes not only have an impact on students themselves; they also generate substantial costs to taxpayers in reduced tax payments, higher health-care costs, and an increased toll of crime.

More effectively addressing the problem requires good data. With the right data, school districts can identify those students who are chronically absent and intervene before they fall behind. But which data are good data?

BRIC ARCHIVE

At first glance, it may appear that simply knowing the number of days that a student misses school is sufficient. However, not all absences are created equal. Research reveals that excused versus unexcused absences have completely different implications for how well students fare at school.

Two students who miss the same amount of school will experience different outcomes if one is sick and one is cutting class. Neither is great for student performance, but the latter has more significant consequences. Tracking the reasons for missing school also might lead to different systems of support. A reliable data-collection system must take into account the type of absence. Any data collection must also take into account truancy—the act of missing school for unexcused reasons. Truancy includes not only unexcused absences but unexcused tardies as well.

If we are to understand all reasons why a student might be missing school, it can be critical to examine tardies. With truant tardies, students are missing increments of school. While it may not seem as dramatic as missing an entire day, missing small portions of in-school time adds up, over time, to large amounts of valuable instructional minutes.

Not all absences are created equal."

Hence, a focus strictly on absences may obscure the full portrait of who is missing school and how much school they’re actually missing and why. To identify students who are frequently absent as well as frequently tardy, the reach of attendance programs and practices must be far broader in order to have a greater impact.

Another element of missing school involves days students are not enrolled. Some students enter school late, after the first day of class. One study found that 19 percent of middle school students entered school after the first day of class. Other students transfer schools midyear and miss school because they fail to enroll in their new school immediately after leaving their old school.

Enrollment data need to be coupled with absenteeism data to get a complete picture of how many school days students are enrolled in and attending school over the course of the year.

Finally, it is important to consider rates of absences. Recently, there has been a focus on “chronic” absenteeism—students missing 10 percent or more of the school year, or about 18 days. But we shouldn’t get too fixated on that rate. A study in Chicago found that missing even five days of school in a semester reduced graduation rates by 24 percentage points.

The bottom line? Good data are critical for addressing America’s school attendance crisis.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2016 edition of Education Week as Improving School Attendance Requires Good Data

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being CDC's Latest COVID Guidance for Schools Ends 'Test-to-Stay,' Quarantine Recommendations
Guidance from the CDC on COVID-19 de-emphasizes some school strategies, like social distancing and screening testing.
4 min read
Image of a cotton swab test.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Should Medical Marijuana Be Allowed in Schools?
Many states are leaving it up to schools and districts to decide if students can take cannabis as medication.
7 min read
An employee at a medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sorts buds into prescription bottles on March 22, 2019.
An employee at a medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sorts buds into prescription bottles in 2019.
Julio Cortez/AP
Student Well-Being Opinion How Trauma-Informed Practice Made Me a Better Teacher
Students aren’t the only ones who need help managing their emotional responses. Here’s where to start.
Melody Hawkins
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of learning through trauma
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Well-Being What the Feds' Latest Move on Monkeypox Vaccines Means for Young People
Adults can get a reduced dose of vaccine, but younger people would still receive the traditional shot under an emergency use authorization.
1 min read
Image of a band aid being applied after a vaccination.
iStock/Getty