Special Report
Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Highlights Absenteeism as a Key Challenge for Schools

Reporting mandates, new leeway in using federal aid, and the chance to make it a school-quality indicator all raise the issue’s profile.
December 30, 2016 5 min read

Billboards and yard signs throughout Grand Rapids, Mich., tell students to “Strive for Less Than Five Days Absent.” Leader boards inside school buildings display attendance by grade level. Students who miss too many days are contacted by school personnel and offered support.

Since the district began a focused campaign three years ago, chronic absenteeism has dropped from 36 percent to 23 percent. “It is something every community looking at their data can dig into. It’s very actionable,” says Mel Atkins II, the executive director of community and student affairs for the Grand Rapids public school system.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to report chronic absenteeism rates, and districts will be allowed to use federal dollars on training to reduce the problem. It is one of several options that states can use in order to meet ESSA’s new requirement for a school quality indicator in addition to traditional measures such as standardized-test scores.

As state education officials develop their ESSA implementation plans for submission to the federal government, it’s unclear how many will choose to add chronic absenteeism rates as a gauge of success. While the indicator is seemingly straightforward, schools face hurdles defining what it means for a student to be absent (partial or full day), determining how much constitutes “chronic,” and being on top of tracking it.

Defining the Problem

Reporting chronic absenteeism is different from measuring truancy (unexcused absences) or a school’s average daily attendance, which can mask problems with individual students who miss school for any reason, according to Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, which helped develop the “chronic absence” measure and campaigned to get it into federal legislation. It is a relatively new approach made possible with electronic databases and the federal mandate, but it is not necessarily an extra burden, in Chang’s view.

Attendance Works recommends defining chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of a school year (or about 18 days) for any reason—excused or unexcused, including suspensions.

Chang anticipates at least five states will adopt chronic absenteeism as the new school quality indicator in their ESSA accountability plans, but it’s hard to predict as officials are in the middle of preparing those plans. “People don’t understand there are multiple attendance metrics,” she said. “Before 2010, very few ever used the term ‘chronic absence.’”

A question added to the Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection in 2013-14 provided the first national snapshot of chronic absenteeism. About 13 percent—or 6 million U.S. students—missed at least 15 days of school in 2013-14.

Research shows that chronic absenteeism is linked with lower achievement, disengagement from school, and increased risk of dropping out. And it disproportionately is a problem among low-income students and students with disabilities.

It was valuable to see the problem was highly concentrated so resources can be targeted, notes Chang.

“This country is founded on the idea that every kid has an equal opportunity to learn and succeed,” says Chang. “If kids can’t get to school when they are 4 or 5 because of health issues, violence in their communities, not having access to transportation—these are all excused absences, often … they are off track for reading by 3rd grade, and most never catch up.”

Advocates such as The Education Trust, a nonprofit in Washington,D.C., that advocates on behalf of disadvantaged students and students of color, welcome the focus on improving attendance and the clear connection it has to student success, but also caution that states may game the system depending on how they define chronic absenteeism.

“A lot of states, schools, and districts don’t necessarily feel responsible for attendance. They have the attitude, ‘We work with the kids that show up.’ The reality is there is a ton that schools can do to make sure kids get to school,” says Natasha Ushomirsky, the director of K-12 policy development for The Education Trust. “One clear benefit of including chronic absenteeism as an accountability measure is incentivizing schools to look at their practices and consider what it is they can do.”

Rigorous Prevention Programs

Maryland State Superintendent of Education Karen Salmon says rigorous prevention programs are needed to attack the problem of chronic absenteeism and will likely be discussed as a suggested indicator. “I don’t know if it will end up being in the [ESSA] plan or not because it’s still in the draft stages, but it could be,” she said. “It has the potential.”

Attendance is a stressor every year, according to Martha Bruckner, the superintendent of Council Bluffs Community Schools in western Iowa. The 9,000-student district has been able to improve high school graduation rates to 88 percent from 68 percent in the past decade. It has been able to improve attendance in the early grades and overall, but the district has not succeeded in noticeably improving attendance at the high school level.

While Bruckner believes working on chronic absenteeism is important, she said it is not a good indicator for ESSA since it is so closely related to other indicators that demonstrate challenges in high-poverty districts.

“Why would we ever choose one more measure that points out the obvious ... one more reason why we are failing,” she said. “We can move the needle, but we will never move it to where some affluent districts are. Why put another ‘L’ on our forehead for loser?”

Chang says while some educators are worried that the absenteeism metrics are going to be used to judge them unfairly, the hope is the measure can bring additional resources to where they are needed most, rather than being punitive.

California has moved away from using truancy as the prime indicator of student risk to tracking chronic absenteeism. “This will revolutionize the way that we are able to identify which student groups are at risk because of missing too much school,” said David Kopperud, an education programs consultant and chairman of the state school attendance review board. Once the statewide data system has collected individual student attendance data, chronic absenteeism can finally become a performance indicator, says Kopperud.

The California legislature recently passed a law that revised the duties of attendance supervisors to identify and respond to early patterns of chronic absenteeism. Kopperud said the change reflects a shift in mindset that attendance is primarily something beyond the school’s control or a matter for law enforcement.

Kopperud says the work is important because, repeating a quote from California Superintendent Tom Torlakson in April: “You can have the best facilities, and the best teachers, and best curriculum in the world, but none of that matters if students are not in school.”

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