Deep dives into chronic student absenteeism often focus on older grades, those in middle and high school.
But a new study looking at absenteeism in kindergarten through 3rd grade in Delaware and the effect on students’ and schools’ academic performance calls for additional emphasis on ensuring consistent attendance in the early years.
Analyzing thousands of student records and their progress over multiple years, the researchers found that chronic absenteeism in kindergarten predicted lower test scores on Delaware’s Smarter Balanced assessment in math and English language arts in 3rd grade. (Though the definition of chronic absenteeism varies, the term generally refers to students who are absent at least 10 percent of the school days in an academic year.)
The negative academic impacts were not limited to students with large number of absences. The schoolwide effect in schools with higher-than-average absenteeism was sometimes up to 20 times the effect on an individual student’s performance, said Lauren P. Bailes, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware School of Education.
She co-authored an upcoming paper on the research findings with Henry May, the director of the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy and an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, and Danielle Riser.
The researchers found that each additional day in a school’s average chronic absenteeism rate was related to a 0.1 or 0.2 standard deviation decrease in the school’s math score. (The decline in English/language arts scores was smaller.)
“This becomes not just an individual consequence, but a contextual effect that reflects just how hard it is to teach and to maintain a consistent academic program in a school where there is a lot of consistent, current, chronic absenteeism,” Bailes said. “It sort of takes what is happening on the individual level and magnifies it many, many times, so that even if an individual student in a high-absence school is not absent that much ... they are likely to experience the consequences of that school-level average absenteeism.”
The researchers argue that this schoolwide impact poses a greater threat that deserves more attention. Bailes recalled her experience teaching middle school and how disruptive it was when a few students were absent because of the flu or otherwise. Both the students who’d been absent and those who were not lost instructional time and progress because she had to reteach content, she said.
“The kind of learning that happens in elementary school is so unique,” said Bailes. “It’s when we hope kids are learning phonics, and reading, and numeracy skills, and the lack of those can be incredibly detrimental long term.”
Every day matters
The study looked at 55,259 students in five cohorts, who were in 3rd grade from the 2014-15 school year to 2018-19. The researchers removed about 3,100 students who had been absent from school for more than 30 days a year—a number of days that might indicate that they had moved or were dealing with a serious issue, like illness or hospitalization, the researchers wrote.
Following the other students, Bailes and her colleagues found kindergarten had the highest rates of absenteeism among the four grades they studied and that at least a quarter of students in each of the four grades missed 10 or more days of school a year.
Absenteeism was not also evenly distributed, with some schools notching significantly higher rates.
In all, the researchers found a strong causal link between absenteeism in kindergarten and performance on 3rd grade assessments.
On the individual level, every day that a student was absent in kindergarten was predictive of a drop in their ELA and math scores in 3rd grade—a .014 to .021 standard deviation decrease in math and a .008 to .015 standard deviation reduction in ELA.
The schoolwide effects of higher-than-average chronic absenteeism were “potent,” dwarfing the individual effects, according to Bailes.
They found that each additional day in a school’s average chronic absenteeism rate was related to a 0.1 or 0.2 standard deviation decrease in the school’s math and ELA scores.
Finding the root causes
Because the reasons for chronic absenteeism vary, the solutions have to be diverse, Bailes said.
“The research tells us that that can be any number of things,” she said, including feeling unsafe or disconnected, being sick, or transportation issues. “Some schools are going to have issues around climate and peer interactions, and for some schools it’s about engagement with the academic program.”
Reversing high absenteeism may take schools integrating more social-emotional learning programs, restorative justice practices, revamping school discipline policies, and ensuring that schools are “safe, healthy, generative, connected places for kids,” Bailes said.
A key part of any intervention is a necessary shift in how adults, including parents, think about kindergarten and the important skills students learn at the beginning of their academic careers.
“It’s not babysitting; it’s not even day care,” Bailes said. “It’s where really fundamental skills are learned and practiced, and put in place for those subsequent 10 years, but certainly leading up to the first round of achievement testing. And so [there needs to be] additional emphasis on just how critical kindergarten is.”
Parents are an essential part of any solution, she added.“One of the challenges is that elementary school kids don’t get themselves to school that often,” she said. “They need adults.”
Given the findings about schoolwide impact, school leaders must also consider the contextual factors that may deter students from coming to school, like climate and student engagement.
“So really thinking through what does it mean to shift a school’s approach to organization-wide absenteeism versus the individual approach,” Bailes said. “We really need the two of them in tandem.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2023 edition of Education Week as Why Kindergarten Attendance Matters For the Whole School