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Student Absenteeism: Putting the Spotlight on Empty Seats

In a new report, researchers say they found a link between higher rates of student absenteeism and lower scores in reading and mathematics on a nationwide exam.

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In a new report, researchers say they found a link between higher rates of student absenteeism and lower scores in reading and mathematics on a nationwide exam. It’s a finding that isn’t likely to surprise many people, least of all educators in America’s public schools.

Indeed, a flurry of recent studies confirm what to many observers seems like little more than common sense: Students can’t learn if they’re not in class, and too many of them are missing seat time. The question is whether the growing chorus is getting loud enough for policymakers to take more significant action.

The newest addition to the research roundup comes from the national organization Attendance Works, and ties student absenteeism to lower performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam for grades 4 and 8. Students who said they had missed at least three school days in the month prior to the 2013 exam scored lower on average in reading and math than their peers in states and districts with better self-reported attendance rates.

When considering these kinds of studies it’s important to remember that correlation is not causation. NAEP represents a snapshot of student performance on one assessment rather than a definitive statement of their abilities. Indeed the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, has repeatedly warned the results should not be used to draw conclusions about the merits of a particular educational approach. (So far that hasn’t stopped people from doing exactly that.)

With these caveats in mind, here are some key takeaways from the new report:

  • About one in five students nationally missed three or more days of school in the month prior to the NAEP exam;
  • In fourth grade, the absentee students scored an average 12 points lower on the reading assessment than those with no absences;
  • In eighth grade, absentee students scored an average 18 points lower on the math assessment;
  • States with the worst absenteeism rates were Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming;
  • California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas and Vermont had the strongest attendance records for the month prior to the NAEP exam.

While the percentages varied, the constant was that lower NAEP scores lined up with a higher rate of absenteeism.

Attendance Works’ researchers found lower performance among students with higher absenteeism “at every age, in every subject, in every racial and ethnic group and in every state and city examined,” according to the report. “In many cases, the students with more absences have skill levels one to two years below their peers. While students from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent, the ill effects of missing too much school hold true for all socio-economic groups.”

It’s no secret that students who face more challenging living situations are typically weaker performers on standardized tests. But the new report echoes earlier findings that skipping school hurts everyone, including kids living in more affluent households.

In the long run, wealthier students have a better chance of making up that deficit than their classmates from low-income households. But in the short term “you can be from a high-income family and not a minority, and skipping school still hurts you,” said Robert Balfanz, a researcher and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The new Attendance Works report highlights the challenge of getting students to place a higher value their own learning, Balfanz said, and to helping parents recognize that there can be harm from even sporadic absences that pile up month by month, and year by year.

“Chronic absenteeism” is defined as missing at least 10 percent of the instructional time (18 school days in most districts) over the course of an academic year. Researchers conservatively estimate that 10 to 15 percent of the nation’s K-12 population — that’s 5 to 7.5 million students each year — are not attending school on a regular basis.

Increasingly, educators and policymakers are focusing on student attendance as a crucial factor in school improvement efforts. Recent research has found that poor attendance in the early grades can predict whether a student’s reading skills are on track at the end of third grade – a crucial indicator of future academic success. Long-term studies have also predicted high-school dropouts by their early records of absenteeism. Absences at the start of the academic year should be taken particularly seriously, according to one Baltimore study: Nine out of 10 students who missed five days in September went on to be chronically absent for the year – skipping on average 70 instructional days. (September is also National Attendance Awareness Month.)

In its new report the San Francisco-based Attendance Works says states and districts aren’t doing enough to track chronic school absenteeism, and there’s a lack of consistency in both methodology and terminology. That’s making it harder to identify successful strategies and then take them to scale.

“To come up with a solution you have to know you have a problem,” said Hedy Chang, Attendance Works’ director. “Right now many districts and states don’t realize how serious their absenteeism rates are in part because they’re simply not tracking the data.”

Chang pointed to research showing that students who are chronically absent become less engaged in learning as the school year progresses – again, not a surprise but still a troubling finding. Another study found absences in early grades predicted whether students developed the social-emotional skills (popularly referred to as “grit” in some education reform circles) to persevere later in their academic careers.

When asked why they skip school, older students typically give a range of reasons from family problems to outright boredom (an answer particularly common among high schoolers, according to one recent survey). Remaking schools into a place where students want to be is certainly one of the elements of improving attendance. But while many educators are focusing on boosting student interest and motivation, lawmakers are trying more aggressive tactics to tackle truancy, often with mixed results.

In some states students drivers’ licenses if they’re not in good standing on school attendance, while in others parents face fines, loss of driving privileges and even jail time for letting their kids skip class. (In a particularly tragic case earlier this year, a Pennsylvania mother died of heart failure while serving out a sentence imposed after she couldn’t pay $2,000 in truancy fines.) There’s little evidence that these kinds of tactics are having a lasting impact.

The answer isn’t more threats of punishment, said Attendance Works’ Chang, who added that the most successful interventions have been those that match at-risk students – and their families – with trained mentors and support networks. (Check out a particularly compelling example from New York City.)

Classroom teachers are the first line of defense because they’re most likely to notice patterns of absenteeism. But there also need to be early warning systems to alert parents to the risk of even a handful of skipped days, Chang said, as well as school-community partnerships to help identify and support families that are struggling to get their kids to school regularly.

“If you think a school is just going to scold you or arrest you for not showing up, that’s not engagement,” Chang said. “What’s needed is a personal connection – someone saying ‘Where were you today? We missed you. How can we help?’”