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Missing Class: Using Data to Track Chronic Absenteeism

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For every savant who’s skilled enough to ditch class and still ace the course, many more who miss school fall way behind, increasing their odds of dropping out or performing poorly.

The implications are major: If a school has a high number of students repeatedly absent, there’s a good chance other troubles are afoot. Feeling uninspired in the classroom, poor family outreach, or struggles at students’ homes are just some of the root causes of absenteeism, experts say.

Journalists at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in Boston this month learned about the hazards of missing too much school and the steps media outlets can take to track whether students are absent too often.

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, the executive director of the advocacy group Attendance Works, was on hand to explain the situation and highlight efforts in some districts to increase their attendance rates. Roughly 10 percent of all students in public schools are chronically absent nationwide, which means they miss either two days a month of school* or 10 percent of all their classes, according to Chang. In poorer communities, the rate of absenteeism can be more than three times as high, she said.

The reason for missing class doesn’t matter in chronic absenteeism figures, said Chang. Whether an absence is excused or not, a student is still out of the teacher’s reach to learn the lessons of the day. That makes absenteeism different than truancy, which has a punitive connotation and is typically defined by states as students’ having a certain number of unexcused absences.

Among younger students, chronic absenteeism can predict lower than average reading levels by grade three, failing in classes by middle school and dropping out by high school.

Sometimes absenteeism data signals disciplinary issues. If there’s data showing school suspension and absenteeism going up, “that’s a school climate issue” said Chang, because students don’t feel they have a chance to succeed.

States have the data. For one, it was part of the list of requirements articulated in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. With state plans for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act a year away, it remains to be seen whether attendance will make its way into state accountability measurements for schools under the new federal education law of the land. The CORE districts in California that received a waiver from NCLB use absenteeism in their accountability metrics.

James Vaznis, a reporter at The Boston Globe who’s written extensively about Boston’s attendance numbers and joined Chang on the panel, said even without a federal mandate, schools have attendance data for other record-keeping purposes. It’s just a matter of negotiating with the district or school to receive the absenteeism information without running afoul of privacy laws.

Reporters can ask for de-identified student data – a fancy way of saying student ID numbers will be replaced by other numbers that don’t reveal the identities of students. Going this route allows the reporter to determine whether the same few students are missing the bulk of classes. A school or district may have below average absenteeism rates, but certain students – such as kids who are part of the same demographic group – miss class more than half the time, for example.

In some cases, reporters can spur education agencies to begin reporting absenteeism data in ways that benefit the public.

The reasons for missing class run the gamut from students’ feeling unchallenged to structural problems such as lack of access to health or dental care, poor transit options, trauma, unsafe walks to school, and homelessness. And sometimes parental advocacy falls short. In one example, Chang said a survey asked parents whether their children missed more than 10 percent of school, and a surprisingly low number said yes. When the question was rephrased to ask whether their children missed two or more days of school a month, the number of yes replies shot up.

In Texas, a study found that some absences chalked up to illness could be parental cover for other family responsibilities. Attendance Works points to a similar study in North Carolina that came to similar conclusions.**

Chang pointed to a handful of communities she’s aware of where mentors develop relationships with students and can function as intermediaries between the student, school and parent. A student may feel embarrassed sharing personal details with school officials, but a strong rapport with a mentor can help initiate a plan of action to improve attendance. That can mean addressing the students’ health needs or placing students in more stimulating classes, among other things. The White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative has launched one such mentoring program in 10 cities. The AmeriCorps Success Mentor Program is another mentoring and outreach effort started in 2010.

Attendance Works has produced a number of case studies to highlight promising practices. Beyond mentoring, other actions include educators making home visits to underscore the value of attending school regularly or creating incentives for students to reduce absenteeism.

The Los Angeles Unified School District partnered with advertising groups to market competitions for students who had perfect attendance. The prizes included tablets and even a car. Attendance improved between 2007 and 2012, generating an additional $1 million in revenues for the school district, according to Attendance Works. In Grand Rapids, where a campaign called Challenge 5 included an advocacy and training campaign for school officials, the absenteeism rate dropped by a quarter and student scores on standardized tests increased over a few years.

*The post was modified to clarify the definition for chronic absenteeism. The 15-days figure that appeared earlier pertained to the definition used by Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. 

** This study was added after the post’s publication.