School & District Management

Why Kindergarten Attendance Matters for the Whole School

By Denisa R. Superville — May 18, 2023 4 min read
Image of an empty desk.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
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.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Tech Is Everywhere. But Is It Making Schools Better?
Join us for a lively discussion about the ways that technology is being used to improve schools and how it is falling short.

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

School & District Management Opinion When It Comes to Leadership, Self-Awareness Matters. Here's Why
One leader learned she had a habit of shutting down others' ideas instead of inspiring them. Here's how she changed.
Robin Shrum
6 min read
Picture1 6.19.32 AM
Robin Shrum
School & District Management Opinion Don’t Bewail Summer Vacation for Students, Rethink It
Students experience summer vacation differently, depending on family resources. We should rethink the tradition with that in mind.
2 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School & District Management Women in K-12 Leadership Don't Get Enough Support. Here's What Needs to Change
Fairer family-leave policies, pay transparency, better data collection, and more on-the-job support are elements of the plan.
7 min read
Illustration showing diversity with multi-colored human figures.
School & District Management School Counselors Face 'Role Ambiguity.' This State Tried to Clarify Matters
New York's new regulations didn't always change how principals viewed or interacted with school counselors, research finds.
5 min read
Man trapped in maze.
Man trapped in maze.
iStock/Getty Images Plus