Teachers, school leaders, and policymakers have been working diligently to close achievement gaps and reduce dropout rates. Yet we often overlook the obvious: for any of this to actually work, kids need to show up to school. Getting students in the door (preferably before the bell) is a critical first step for schools, districts, and states to realize their educational goals. Recording and tracking student absenteeism data over time can help teachers and school leaders to identify students who are at risk of falling behind due to excessive absences, and to uncover the root causes of chronic absence in their community.
What Is Chronic Absence?
Chronic absence is missing an excessive amount of valuable class time for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences, and suspensions. While some students might be skipping school (truancy), many absences are excused and are related to legitimate health concerns. Even so, excused absences are not benign: missed class hours quickly add up and can cause a student to fall behind.
Students who are chronically absent are more likely to struggle: they are more likely to read below grade level in third grade, fail key courses in middle school, and drop out of high school. Chronic absence affects more than 7.5 million students nationwide, including 1 in 10 kindergarteners and first graders, exacerbating achievement gaps and contributing to dropout rates. Children living in poverty are more likely to be both chronically absent and to suffer academically because of those missed days.
Schools and districts might not realize the extent of their attendance problems. While most schools and districts record how many students show up each day (average daily attendance) and how many miss school for unexcused reasons (truancy), they do not always count how many students are missing enough school to be off-track academically (chronic absence).
How Data Can Help
Without tracking chronic absence over time, it can be nearly impossible to for a school leader or administrator to differentiate between a student who misses a few days of school each year and a student who misses a few days each month. By looking at the data, Superintendent Richard Middleton of San Antonio’s North East Independent School District (NEISD) identified asthma as the primary cause of student absences in the district. He quickly implemented strategies to reduce asthma-related absences, including the creation of a Department of Environmental Health to monitor air quality and mold in classrooms and a community-wide program to educate parents and students about asthma. Attendance rates improved. Similarly, New York City launched the NYC Asthma Friendly Schools Campaign to combat chronic absences after the data showed asthma to be the leading cause of absenteeism. Using chronic absence data, districts and schools are able to intervene early—offering support to students before they are too far off track, and saving money on costly remediation that is often required when absences accumulate unchecked.
While schools and districts are responsible for monitoring student attendance, states have a role to play too. States are unique in their ability to provide districts with longitudinal data, including information on highly mobile students who move across districts often. States can calculate chronic absence (according to Data for Action 2013, 45 states collect the data required for calculation), and support and incentivize interventions at the local level. Finally, by publicly reporting rates of chronic absence, states can equip parents, teachers, and community members with the information necessary to uncover and reverse any systemic problems contributing to high levels of absenteeism in a school or district.
It is essential for states to support schools and districts in collecting—and using—chronic absence data. States can do that by securely collecting longitudinal attendance data, calculating chronic absence rates, and supporting local interventions. States and districts must identify the students who are chronically absent, and tailor supports and interventions to meet the needs of each child if they intend to improve student outcomes and realize their educational goals.