Why Attendance and Chronic Absence?


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It’s a big problem: Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 8 million (1 out of 7) students in the United States were at risk academically each year because they are chronically absent—missing 10% or more of school days due to absence for any reason—excused and unexcused absences as well as suspensions. Learn more in, Using Chronic Absence to Map Interrupted Schooling, Instructional Loss and Educational Inequity: Insights from School Year 2017-18 Data.

Today the number is likely much, much higher. New data from Connecticut shows that more than 20% of all students in the state were chronically absent compared to 12% last year. Ninth graders, as well as younger students, especially struggled with attendance in remote learning. See our report about data from Connecticut.

Starting as early as kindergarten and prekindergarten, chronic absence can have adverse consequences for academic achievement, research shows. Children with challenges— including poverty, chronic health conditions, racial discrimination or bias, homelessness, frequent moves and disabilities—are especially hard hit. The U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection breaks down chronic absence rates by race and gender. In school districts where state funding is determined by average daily attendance, chronic absence costs schools millions of dollars each year.

But it’s often overlooked: During the pandemic, shifts in learning models disrupted the collection and utilization of attendance data. The definition of “attendance” became less clear when learning was offered remotely. And before the pandemic, many schools and districts had no idea how big the chronic absence problem was because they didn’t track how many students are missing too much school—for any reason, excused or unexcused. Instead, they looked at average daily attendance (the percentage of students who show up every day) or at truancy (unexcused absences).

We know what to do: Schools, families, students and communities can work together to identify and overcome barriers to attendance while building an engaging school environment that motivates daily attendance. They can monitor data to find out which students are struggling with attendance. Listening to students and families about their experiences and what solutions would be most helpful ensures that schools and districts offer the appropriate support. We can also advocate for financial investments to address barriers to being in school. Starting with prevention is more effective and less costly than punitive efforts involving fines and court appearances. Legal action should always be the last resort.

We know what to say:
All parents care about their children’s success in life. But schools and districts have often not communicated effectively about attendance expectations or when student absences become problematic. As a result, parents often do not realize how quickly absences can add up to academic trouble. Parents also don’t always make the connection between attendance in elementary and middle school and academic achievement that leads to the likelihood of graduation from high school, according to survey results from the Ad Council and the California Attorney General. Likewise, students don’t realize the cost of absenteeism. Nearly half the older students surveyed by Get Schooled believe they could skip a day a week and still not suffer academically. The message we must deliver is that every day missed is a day of instruction missed, a day of classroom interaction with students and teachers that can’t be recovered. And high levels of chronic absence can affect all students in a classroom or school, not just the absent ones, research shows.

The time is right: While it is important to send a message all year that attendance matters, the transition back to in-person school this fall will be like no other. The start of school is an important time to strengthen and forge relationships—to rebuild routines and rituals or make new ones—to create a community at school. It’s also when schools and communities lay out expectations for the coming year and begin to develop a culture of attendance. Family handouts, school-wide posters, rallies and assemblies (virtual or in-person) provide perfect opportunities to share this message with students, parents and staff. School officials are often interviewed by the media at this time, another chance to reach the entire community. The start of school is also the right time to begin paying attention to attendance trends in local data. Educators can predict who might struggle with attendance by looking at prior absenteeism—or absences during the first month of school.