School & District Management

School Absenteeism: What Do We Know About Students Who Aren’t There?

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 29, 2016 4 min read
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Before top teachers with fascinating curriculums and engaging activities can even attempt to make a difference, the students have to show up.

Yet chronic absenteeism has proven to be a sticky problem for education policymakers, up to and including President Obama. The White House’s “Every Student, Every Day” initiative aims to boost school attendance through a combination of mentorship programs for at-risk students and advertising campaigns, like the one below, to raise parents’ understanding of the issue:

Absences add up from MultiVu Video on Vimeo.

The federal initiatives, as well as state and district efforts to combat absenteeism, come in response to mounting evidence that missed days quickly increase a student’s risk of failing grades, behavior problems and even dropping out of high school. It’s worth looking at what the research to date says about who is absent and why.

What counts as “absent?”

For research purposes, a student is considered chronically absent if she misses 10 percent or more of the school year—roughly 18 days in a typical 180-day year—for any reason. Sometimes that’s calculated before the end of the school year; a student who has missed five days in the first nine-week grading period could be considered chronically absent by an early warning system, for instance.

The National Forum on Education Statistics’s guide to measuring attendance does not distinguish between “excused” and “unexcused” absences, because, it argues, “all absences reduce a student’s opportunity to learn.” In practice, however, attendance definitions vary significantly from state to state and even district to district. A student may or may not be counted as missing school if he is sick, caring for a family member, in court, or observing a religious holiday—all of which are considered absences under the federal guide.

Moreover, for secondary school students, districts can vary in whether they take attendance once, at the start of the school day, or at the start of each class. The latter can reveal patterns of students skipping particular classes, which could point to different problems (arguments with a teacher or leaving early for an after-school job, for example.)

Which students miss school?

High school seniors have the highest rates of absences—and traditional anti-truancy laws tend to focus on teenagers skipping class—but the youngest students miss nearly as much school as teenagers. Recent studies have found 25 percent to nearly 50 percent of preschoolers in Washington D.C., Chicago and New York City chronically miss school. About 1 in 10 kindergartners and 1st graders also miss a month or more of school.

A landmark 2012 study of absenteeism in six states found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that poverty was the biggest risk factor for missing school: 1 in 4 rural poor students missed more than 10 days of school, and 1 in 3 urban poor students did the same. Students in poverty are more likely to miss school due to asthma and other illnesses, transportation difficulties, and students in high-poverty schools are more likely to experience in- and out-of-school suspensions, all of which contribute to absenteeism.

In both elementary and secondary grades, studies have also found students who are bullied or who fear being victimized at school are more likely to miss days, even to the point of outright refusing to attend.

Education watchers will be able to get the most comprehensive picture of chronic absenteeism later this spring, when the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights will release nationwide data on students who miss 15 days or more of school.

What brings students back to class?

Traditionally, most efforts to combat absenteeism focused on criminalizing truancy, through taking students and their parents to court if the students miss too many days. However, a 2015 Texas study found truancy courts disproportionately targeted black and Hispanic students, as well as students in special education, and the fines the courts imposed may have hurt families in poverty.

By contrast, school-based health clinics and other services designed to target families in poverty have been associated with lower absenteeism in some studies.

President Obama’s initiative focuses on providing chronically absent students with mentors, and there is some early evidence that this may help, but there have been few studies detailing what attendance-based mentoring is most effective.

A 2013 meta-analysis of dropout-prevention programs suggested efforts to reengage students using career training could encourage older, chronically absent students to come back to class, but the evidence was mixed.

Efforts to eliminate school suspensions that disproportionately affect poor and minority students also may have a side benefit of reducing missed school time for those students, according to a 2014 study, as suspensions both remove students from school and contribute to disengagement in the long run.

Chart: Throughout elementary grades, lower income is associated with higher poverty, according to data from the National Center for Children in Poverty. Source: National Center for Children in Poverty, Education Week.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.