While each of us hold many opinions on various education issues, there is one item we all can agree on: students cannot receive a high-quality education if they are not in school. Despite this consensus, chronic absence—defined as missing excessive amounts of school for any reason—continues to affect students across all demographics, leading to greater achievement gaps and dropout rates. While Attendance Awareness Month reminds us how important it is to address this issue, it is even more important to shine a light on the communities who have taken action to decrease chronic absence and improve student learning.
While being chronically absent affects individual students, high chronic absence rates in a classroom, school, or district can also be a key indicator of broader, systemic problems in a community. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (which includes the city of Pittsburgh), the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania (UWSWPA) identified chronic absence as a key issue affecting local students and teamed up with schools, nonprofits, and local public agencies to tackle this problem together. This process included three key steps which required using data to:
- Identify the problem.
In 2013, attendance data showed that roughly 33 percent of students in Pittsburgh Public Schools were chronically absent. In some schools, the rate was even higher. To address this, the UWSWPA launched Be There, a community-wide campaign focused on encouragement and positive reinforcement to encourage students to come to school more often. The Be There Campaign is comprised of initiatives like Attendance Challenges and the Be There Buddy Project, which pairs chronically absent students with caring school staff to help cultivate positive relationships within school walls.
- Keep track of progress.
To measure the outcomes of the Be There Campaign, leaders at UWSWPA check chronic absence data in schools they are supporting before and after an intervention. To date, the schools have seen significant yearly changes in chronic absence rates. In the 2017-18 school year, one elementary school in Riverview School District reduced its chronic absence rate from 13 percent to just 6.4 percent after working with the UWSWPA on quarterly Attendance Challenges and the Buddy Project. West Allegheny School District also saw a district-wide reduction of chronic absence rates, with all schools falling below 5 percent.
- Provide support and identify best practices.
Leaders at UWSWPA know that having accurate chronic absence data is critical to addressing the issues that keep kids from coming to school. UWSWPA provides schools with technical assistance and training to help them accurately record and track attendance data. School leaders use attendance data to make better-informed decisions about interventions for individual students, like identifying and supporting high schoolers at risk of not graduating due to poor attendance. UWSWPA leaders use aggregate chronic absence data to identify effective interventions and best practices that they can replicate.
Empowered with data, Allegheny County community members collaborated around a shared vision of addressing chronic absence and have improved the outcomes of students by measurable degrees. While this story is a local example of success, chronic absence is a pervasive issue throughout the country. Nationwide, 15 percent of all students – one in seven – is chronically absent, and every state has chronically absent students.
Recognizing the power of measuring chronic absence and understanding its effects on student and school outcomes, many state leaders have selected chronic absence as a non-academic measure of school quality or success under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However, it is important that chronic absence data be used, not just calculated and reported. Data Matters, a new report from Attendance Works and Everyone Graduates Center, details how state policymakers, teachers, and others can use chronic absence data to unpack barriers and take action to help all students. For additional information about how state leaders can use chronic absence data (and other data) to improve learning and outcomes, see DQC’s Opportunities to Make Data Work for Students in the Every Student Succeeds Act.