Why Addressing Chronic Absence Matters for Recovery?

We have a national crisis: National data shows that chronic absence—missing 10% or more of school days due to absence for any reason—excused, unexcused and suspensions, nearly doubled by the end of the 2021-22 school year. It now affects nearly one out of three students. State data from 2022-23 shows only a slight decrease.

This attendance crisis is having a broad impact on learning, given that two-thirds of enrolled students attended a school with high (20-29%) or extreme (30%+) levels of chronic absence.

When chronic absence reaches high levels, the educational experience of peers, not just those frequently missing school, is also affected.

Like the warning light on a car dashboard, chronic absence alerts schools to pay attention to individual students whose absences add up. Starting as early as kindergarten and prekindergarten, chronic absence can affect student outcomes. Research shows that chronically absent students are less likely to read on grade-level by third grade, more likely to score lower on standardized tests and get suspended in middle school. By ninth grade, chronic absenteeism is a better indicator of dropping out of high school than eighth-grade test scores.

Institutional biases and lack of adequate and equitable investments contribute to the disproportionately high levels of chronic absence among students of color, students with disabilities, and those who live in low-income communities. When chronic absence affects large numbers of students, or disproportionately affects certain groups of students, it is typically a sign of systemic failures that make it challenging for students to attend. These include unreliable transportation, lack of access to healthcare and housing displacement. Practices that push students out of school settings, such as punitive disciplinary policies, and a lack of teachers or curriculum that reflect cultures and ethnicities of the student population, are also barriers to attending and engaging in school.

But it’s often overlooked: Chronic absenteeism data is easily masked by average daily attendance and truancy data, which have been collected for a much longer time. Chronic absence reveals how many and which students have missed too much school for any reason, while truancy only counts unexcused absences. Average daily attendance reveals how many kids typically show up to school each day but doesn’t show how many students are missing too many days.

We know what to do: Schools, families, students and communities can work together to overcome barriers to attendance while investing in relationships and engaging learning environments that can motivate students to come to school, and then layering in support when that’s needed. 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.

Offering access to resources, such as health services, food, housing supports and expanded learning can help students and families stay healthy and overcome attendance challenges. We also can advocate for targeting 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: To re-engage students and families, educators and community partners need to adjust how they explain the importance of attendance. This involves explaining that daily attendance matters, not only for academic success, but because school offers opportunities to develop social and emotional skills such as listening, problem-solving and self-regulation, all which are needed to grow and learn. School staff and community partners can use the Attendance Works R.E.A.L. framework to tackle misperceptions caused from students spending so much time at home during the pandemic.

The time is right: While it is important to send a message all year that attendance matters, the start of school is an important time to strengthen and forge relationships—to rebuild or make new routines and rituals to create a community at school.

The start of school is also when schools and communities lay out expectations for the coming year and begin to develop a culture of attendance. Parent handouts, school-wide posters, rallies and assemblies provide perfect opportunities to share this message with students, families and staff.

School and local elected 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 and community partners can review attendance data from the prior year—or absences during the first month of school—to identify who might struggle with attendance.