Back to Skills

More Than Numbers: Getting Inside the Data on Student Absenteeism

As states prepare for new ESSA reporting requirements, advocates push for accountability, raising family awareness.

Back to Skills

With a new federal accountability mandate looming, teachers and school administrators are trying just about everything to improve student attendance — from offering cold cash to students who show up regularly to texting warning messages to parents when their kids miss class.

These efforts come as some advocates and researchers warn that the nation faces a “chronic absenteeism” crisis.

Indeed, a new report finds that an estimated 8 million students — were “chronically absent” in the 2015-16 academic year — the most recent year for which national data is available — representing about 15 percent of the nation’s K-12 population. That’s a 10 percent jump from the prior academic year, according to the report from the Attendance Works, a national advocacy and research organization based in San Francisco.

Researchers typically define chronic absenteeism as missing at least 10 percent of instructional time during the school year. That’s 18 days on the typical school district calendar. (For the new report, Johns Hopkins’ researchers used 15 days as the benchmark, which aligns with the formula used to report the data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.)

This new data should be of particular interest as a key element of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act takes effect: beginning this December, states are required to track student absenteeism and publicly report it in schools’ annual report cards. Additionally, 36 states and the District of Columbia opted to use absenteeism as a metric in their accountability plans under ESSA, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Here are some key findings from the Attendance Works’ report, which was produced with the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University:

  • Poverty is a key driver of whether students are likely to be chronically absent, much more so than whether they attend a rural, urban, or suburban school.
  • About 4 in 10 high schools have “high or extreme levels” of chronically absent students, (defined as 30 percent or more of enrollment).
  • Schools geared for special education students, as well as vocational and alternative education programs, are more likely to have “extreme” levels of absences.

Even as attention is ramping up around absenteeism and its impact on students and schools, this is just one data point in a complex picture. With that in mind, here are four takeaways to consider:

It’s not just high schoolers. Attendance Works finds that 16 percent of elementary schools had high to severe levels of absenteeism, meaning anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of students were chronically absent. Missing instructional days in the lower grades might be viewed by some families as less risky than it is for older students, but some research suggests otherwise. A 2013 study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded that preschoolers who were chronically absent had weaker social-emotional development and more trouble with basic academic skills later on, when compared to their peers with better attendance rates.

To be sure, younger students are less likely than their older siblings to skip school without tacit approval from their parents or guardians. That makes raising family awareness about the risks of such habits essential to any effort to reduce the numbers, according to the Attendance Works’ report as well as other recent studies.

And speaking of families … As Stacy Teicher Khadaroo detailed for the Christian Science Monitor, researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School found parents of “high-absence students routinely underestimate the number of days their children miss. By letting them know, along with [sharing] brief messages about how better attendance boosts achievement, schools can reap some cost-effective gains.”

Also researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Seton Hall University piloted a text messaging platform that let schools give parents “personalized feedback on their child’s attendance,” according to a summary of the study, and offers support to families facing challenges in getting their children to school. Students in the pilot program had significantly lower rates of absenteeism. (Thanks to Georgetown University’s FutureEd blog for bringing this study to my attention.) Larger scale studies have found using technology-based interventions like text messaging can reduce absenteeism by 17 percent.

Go beyond the numbers. The Attendance Works report also offers an interactive map (built by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution), which allows users to search for absenteeism rates by state, district, and even school. The data can also be broken by student subgroups, including based on race, poverty, and gender.

Keep in mind that the state-level data doesn’t identify which students are the worst repeat offenders compared with the occasional skipper. That’s been a problem for states like Minnesota that are trying to more accurately track the problem as part of their ESSA accountability plans, explained Beena Raghavendran for the Star-Tribune.

While the most recent Attendance Works data is a few years old, researchers have found that absenteeism rates typically stay about the same from year to year unless there’s been a major effort to address them, or a significant change in the student population, said Hedy Chang, Attendance Works’ executive director.

That’s why the 2015-16 data should be used as a starting point for identifying whether a chronic absenteeism problem exists and then investigating further, she said. The first step: Look at whether the map’s data jibes with what’s known about a particular district, school or state. That includes looking for outliers, such as schools or districts that are posting unusually low — or high — absenteeism rates.

Reporters should also exercise caution in comparing data among districts and states, as not everyone uses the same methodology for tallying absences — something else absenteeism awareness advocates are hoping to change. In the meantime, “The map is a form of public accountability,” Chang told me. “When we consider the data, it should including asking ourselves: ‘Does this pass the common sense test?’”

The numbers also offer an opportunity to look at where school and community partnerships are succeeding with innovative approaches to fight the problem, Chang added. (Connecticut gets high marks in the new report.)

Motivation matters. A lot. Addressing chronic absenteeism means getting to the underlying reasons why students aren’t showing up. In some cases it’s boredom or a lack of interest in school. Making schools a place more students want to be and where they feel safe and welcomed is essential, experts say. But it also means recognizing the out-of-school factors that can severely influence a student’s readiness and willingness to learn, including violence in their homes or neighborhoods, hunger, and inadequate medical care.

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Tawnell Hobbs looked at schools nationwide that are trying everything from rewarding good attendance with prizes and special privileges to providing on-campus laundry centers for student use. The Detroit school system is among the districts focusing on meeting students’ basic needs to make it easier for them to attend school on a regular basis. According to the Attendance Works report, the Motor City’s chronic absenteeism rate in 2015-16 was 45 percent, more than twice the statewide average of 20 percent and approaching three times the national average of 15.5 percent. As Chalkbeat’s Kimberly Hayes Taylor reported, some schools now offer free access to washers, dryers, and detergent, as well as clothing, basic toiletries, and sanitary supplies.

“If we help remove these barriers,” said Tammy Mitchell, the principal of Detroit’s Holmes Middle School, “students feel comfortable coming to us and asking for what they need. So they don’t have to avoid school, go to class, and not have clean clothes, deodorant, or not feel good about themselves.”