It’s a big problem: Nationally, an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students are at risk academically each year because they are chronically absent—missing 10 percent or more of school days due to absence for any reason—excused and unexcused absences as well as suspensions. The US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for 2013-14 found 6.8 million students, or 14 percent of all students, were chronically absent. Starting as early as kindergarten and prekindergarten, chronic absence can have adverse consequences for academic achievement, research shows.By third grade, chronically absent students, especially those who have experienced multiple years of poor attendance are less likely to read on grade level. By sixth grade, chronic absence becomes a warning sign that a student will drop out of high school. By ninth grade, it’s a better indicator than eighth-grade test scores. Children with certain risk factors— including poverty, chronic health conditions, homelessness, frequent moves and disabilities—are especially hard hit since they can least afford to miss school. Children of color are also disproportionately affected. The CRDC 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: Too many schools and districts have no idea how big the chronic absence problem is because they don’t track how many students are missing too much school—for any reason, excused or unexcused. Instead they look 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 and communities can work together to identify and overcome barriers to attendance while building a positive culture of attendance and an engaging school environment that motivates daily attendance. In New York City, the right interventions, particularly personalized outreach and support, improved attendance and academic performance. 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 they 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 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 absence matters at every grade level. Every day missed is a day of instruction missed, a day of classroom interaction with students and teachers that can’t be recovered. A critical intervention can be ensuring that parents and older students know exactly how many days of school have been missed and at what point too many absences become problematic. When students and families monitor their own attendance it can help them avoid unnecessary absences and alert them to when they to seek support to address barriers that are preventing them from being in class, whether that is an in-school challenge like problematic school discipline practices or a community hurdle such as poor transportation.
The time is right: While it is important to send a message all year that attendance matters, the start of the school year is crucial because that is when schools and communities lay out expectations for the coming year and begin to develop a culture of attendance. Rallies or assemblies 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. September is also the right time to begin paying attention to attendance trends. Educators can predict who might struggle with attendance by looking at past year absenteeism—or absences in the first month of school. ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
In Arkansas, school administrators at Monitor Elementary School discovered a 19 percent chronic absence rate in 2012-13 at the school, where most students are from low-income families and two-fifths are Latino. Chronic absence was highest among kindergarten students and among certain populations, including immigrants from the Marshall Islands, who account for about one-fifth of students. Over the next two years, Monitor Elementary reduced its chronic absence rate to 6 percent. A key to Monitor’s success, as this video details, has been tailoring its family outreach to the communities it serves. Monitor is among several successful attendance-improvement efforts nurtured by the Make Every Day Count initiative of the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.