Students from low-income households and certain racial and ethnic groups have a higher percentage of their school absences deemed unexcused than their peers, which means they are more likely to be met with consequences after missing school, rather than support.
That’s the conclusion of an analysis of California attendance data released this week by researchers from the University of Tennessee, the University of California, Davis, and Attendance Works, a national organization that promotes tracking and addressing poor school attendance.
The findings have national implications at a time when schools around the country have struggled with heightened levels of chronic absenteeism following interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers said.
“We can’t tackle these learning losses if kids aren’t coming into school. It seems like a fundamental basic thing,” said Kevin Gee, an education professor at the University of California, Davis who coauthored the report.
The more punitive approach associated with unexcused absences—legal penalties for truancy, withholding credit for courses, and not allowing students to make up missed classwork—could be counterproductive, further straining student’s and families’ relationships with schools, rather than building the trust that could support more consistent attendance habits, Gee said.
Schools need to effectively communicate with parents about absences, to properly categorize lapses in attendance, and to they find supportive ways to address the factors that keep students out of school, the report recommends.
Demographic trends in school absences
To draw their conclusions, authors analyzed California student attendance data from three academic years: 2017–18, 2018–19, and 2021–22. Overall, about 38 percent of student absences were unexcused in each of the three years studied. The analysis excludes the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years because school closures, remote learning, and inconsistent collection made the data less reliable, the authors wrote.
An absence is marked excused when a student or their family presents proof an acceptable reason under California law, such as illness, a mental health day, or bereavement. An absence is deemed unexcused when no such reason is provided.
Students considered at a “socioeconomic disadvantage” were much more likely to have their absences labeled as unexcused. California’s data system uses that term to describe students with a number of household factors, including parents without high school diplomas, participation in free and reduced-price school meal programs, and homelessness. In 2021-22, 42 percent of socioeconomically disadvantaged students’ absences were considered unexcused, compared to 30 percent of absences deemed unexcused for their peers who are not in that category.
Black, Native American, Latino, and Pacific Islander students also had a higher percentage of absences deemed unexcused compared to white, Asian American, and Filipino students. In the 2021-22 school year, the percentage of absences deemed unexcused was 51 percent for Black students, 42 percent for Pacific Islander and Native American students, and 40 percent for Latino students. By contrast, 32 percent of white students’ total absences were labeled unexcused.
“These disparities cannot be fully explained by poverty since they remained across differences in socioeconomic status,” the report said.
The analysis could not determine if students in differing demographic groups had absences for the same causes—like illness or family obligations—classified differently.
Varying factors affect unexcused absences
But data suggest there may be some factors—like differing levels of trust between parents and schools and differing levels of familiarity with attendance policies—that contribute to how absences are reported by parents and consequently classified by schools, Gee said.
For example, a student who misses five days of school because of illness may be more likely to return with a doctor’s note, which some schools may require after a multiple days of sick leave, if their family has a primary care physician and their parent is aware of the rules related to sick days, the report says. But a student who is uninsured, does not have access to a doctor, and has parents who are unaware of the policy might be more likely to have those missed days labeled unexcused.
Schools increasingly track chronic absenteeism—a metric that includes both excused and unexcused absences—rather than mere attendance. While absences of all kinds affect student learning, regardless of the cause, the repercussions for unexcused absences can be very different, leading to more punitive responses and, at times, legal consequences related to truancy.
Unexcused absences are also missed opportunities for schools to collect data on the specific reasons students stay home, which are often gleaned from parent calls to report an absence. Those calls can help schools track and respond to factors like anxiety about school attendance, mental health concerns, persistent illness, family instability, or challenges related to transportation that may be mitigated by support from a school social worker, strategies promoted by Attendance Works.
That’s especially important as states like California incorporate chronic absenteeism into the accountability systems they use to measure school quality, Gee said.
Inconsistent messaging about attendance
Researchers also analyzed handbooks and websites from 40 randomly selected middle schools and high schools throughout California. When racially segregated and high-poverty schools presented policies related to attendance, they were more likely to use punitive language, like threats of court appearances or detention.
Meanwhile, more diverse schools and schools with fewer students in poverty “tended to adopt communication styles treating parents as partners in promoting attendance and even as valued clients,” the report found. One school’s attendance page even listed contact information for attendance clerks alongside a photo of a smiling hotel concierge waiting to help a customer.
The authors have recommendations for schools to collect better, more accurate data and to improve relationships with students and their families:
- Track data to identify “bright spots” and successful strategies that can be scaled up to help more students.
- Review state and local policies related to unexcused absences and ensure they are applied and communicated consistently across schools and parent groups. Consider tone of messages, potential language barriers, and how easily attendance policies can be accessed on district web pages.
- Provide professional development to ensure educators track absences accurately and have tools to respond when students repeatedly miss school.
- Consider the discretion a school has in deciding which absences are excused and whether that discretion has been applied properly to school policies.