Absenteeism Data Is Inconsistent Across States. But It’s Improving

By Evie Blad — June 14, 2023 4 min read
Toned photograph of student walking down empty school hallway toward exit door.
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As school districts rush to address a recent surge in chronic absenteeism, states have improved efforts to track and report on it . But many still lack clear definitions that would help to insure consistent data on the crisis.

That’s the conclusion of a new analysis of state policies by Attendance Works, an organization that advocates for the use of absenteeism data in school improvement and accountability efforts.

Chronic absenteeism is generally defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days—even if those absences are excused for reasons like illness. Attendance Works estimates the number of chronically absent students has as much as doubled nationwide since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since schools first swiftly switched to remote learning, educators have have struggled to help students and families rebuild consistent attendance habits.

Clear, comparable, consistent state data is important as administrators, researchers, and policymakers look for solutions, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works and lead author of the report.

“One thing is for sure, data on chronic absenteeism is more publicly available than it ever was before,” Chang said. “It’s helpful to keep in context that 10 years ago, no one had ever heard of chronic absences. No one knew this was a problem.”

Here are four key findings from the report.

Most states now define chronic absenteeism consistently

States have increasingly adopted a common definition of chronic absenteeism, the analysis found.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia deem a student as chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more of school days. The rest set a specific number of days missed, or leave it up to local school districts to define.

Attendance Works favors the 10 percent definition because it allows school leaders to flag problematic attendance patterns early, giving them a better chance of intervening, Chang said.

“If a specified number of days absent is used instead of a percentage of days absent, practitioners may wait to intervene until the absences add up and the student’s attendance has become a crisis,” the report said.

How states define a single day’s absence varies

States are less consistent about how they define a single day’s absence, the report found.

Twelve states leave the definition up to local discretion, which means a student who is considered absent in one district after they miss a few morning class periods could be counted as present in the school system next door because they didn’t miss the full day.

That inconsistency weakens state data collection and makes it difficult to look for patterns in chronic absenteeism, Chang said.

“I’ve talked to a superintendent who said, ‘That’s not fair,’” she said. “‘I know the district next to me has an easier definition of attendance. I look worse, but it’s not because I have fewer kids showing up.’ ”

Among the states that set a definition for a single absence, a majority—19 states and the District of Columbia—consider a student absent when they miss half a day of school. Four states count a student absent when they miss more than half a day. The remaining states adopt varying definitions, like requiring schools to submit student attendance data by the hour, rather than by the day.

States are less likely to offer consistent guidance on how to count absences in online learning environments, the report found.

States have improved transparency about absenteeism

States have also improved efforts to share information about chronic absenteeism with the public.

Just two states, New Hampshire and West Virginia, did not post the previous year’s chronic absenteeism data online during the 2022-23 school year, the analysis found. That’s an improvement over 43 states that published such data in the previous academic year.

States could improve data reporting by disaggregating it by student characteristics, like race and poverty status, at the school, district, and grade level, the report suggested.

South Carolina, for example, is developing “real time” data reports on absenteeism levels to help schools track demographic patterns and assess solutions.

“High chronic absence for a particular district, school, grade, or population of students is a sign that educators and community partners need to expand outreach and analysis to understand common barriers to getting to school,” the report said.

Districts have identified a range of factors that affect student absenteeism— from on-site preventative care for children with asthma to transportation services and mentoring.

Spikes in absenteeism complicate states’ efforts

Surges in chronic absenteeism have complicated states’ efforts to use the metric as a factor in their school accountability systems. When a growing number of students in a growing number of schools exceed the absenteeism threshold, it can be more difficult to identify schools for targeted interventions and support, advocates have said.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia use chronic absenteeism as factor in their accountability plans mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s key federal education law. But some have sought to pause use of the indicator or faced challenges helping schools address poor attendance patterns, the analysis found.

For example, the number of California students deemed chronically absent grew from 12 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 30 percent in the 2021-22 school year, the most recent data available.

In Virginia, the number of chronically absent students increased from 11 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 20 percent in 2021-22. The state’s education department had to develop new plans to help schools with the highest levels of absenteeism, which grew during the pandemic, the report found.

“When it is available to the public, you can look for patterns across the state,” Chang said. “It also means that any stakeholder can take a look at it and say, ‘Hey, I’m worried about this issue. What’s happening in my area?’”


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