New research highlights need for better reporting on chronic absenteeism

A new report on chronic absenteeism confirms its status as a major barrier to pupil success but says efforts to define the scope of the problem are hampered by a dearth of absenteeism data.

The Importance of Being in School," by researcher Dr. Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, found only a handful of states measure and report on chronic absenteeism, which the report defines as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a given year - California being among those who do not keep up with the reporting.

"Because it is not measured, chronic absenteeism is not acted upon," Balfanz notes. "Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered."

The report estimates up to 15 percent of students nationwide are chronically absent, meaning as many as 7.5 million students miss enough school to be at severe risk of dropping out or failing to graduate from high school.

The report splits absenteeism into three broad categories:

⢠Students who cannot attend school due to illness, family responsibilities, housing instability, the need to work or involvement with the juvenile justice system.

⢠Students who will not attend school to avoid bullying, unsafe conditions, and harassment.

⢠Students who do not attend school because they, or their parents, do not see the value in being there, they have something else they would rather do, or nothing stops them skipping school.

The study differentiates chronic absenteeism from truancy or average daily attendance, the attendance rate schools use for state report cards and federal accountability.

At the school level, average daily attendance rates largely mask the problem. The report notes a school can have an average daily attendance rate of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent, since different students comprise that 90 percent on different days.

The true magnitude of the problem likely is understated, Balfanz reported, as his research could find chronic absenteeism reports for only Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Another variable is the different ways in which states measure chronic absenteeism. There are differences in the number of days missed and whether transfer students are included in the counts.

The six states reported chronic absentee rates from 6 percent to 23 percent, with high poverty urban areas reporting up to one-third of chronically absent students. In poor rural areas, one in four students can miss at least a month's worth of school.

Chronic absenteeism is most prevalent among low-income students, with gender and ethnic backgrounds apparently not a factor. The youngest and the oldest students tend to have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, with students attending most regularly in grades three through five. The absenteeism rates begin to rise in middle school and continue to climb through grade 12, with seniors often having the highest rate of all.

The negative impact on school success are also noted in the report, which found significant numbers of students in low-income neighborhoods miss staggering amounts of school, sometimes from six months to more than one year, over a five-year period .

Balfanz called out a number of big states, including California and New York, for not collecting individual attendance data and the need to calculate chronic absenteeism.

"Because we don't measure or monitor the problem, we generally don't act on it," said Balfanz. "Left untreated, the problem will likely worsen achievement gaps between rich districts and poor districts and curtail the positive effects of promising current and future reforms."

Balfanz calls the data reporting problem structural, running from the school to the state to the federal level. Schools know students are missing but don't examine the data by student to determine individual absenteeism rates.

The impact of missed days is dramatic: chronically absent students are less likely to score well on achievement tests and less likely to graduate. Students who miss 10 percent of school days on average score in the 30th percentile on standardized reading and math tests, compared to those with zero absences, who score in the 50th percentile.

After evaluating data from multiple states and school districts, researchers concluded consistently high chronic absenteeism is the strongest predictor of dropping out of high school, stronger than course failures, suspensions or test scores. Data from Georgia showed a very strong relationship between attendance in grades eight, nine, and 10 and graduation, with as much as a 50 percentage-point difference in graduation rates for students who missed five or fewer days compared to those who missed 15 or more days.

The report's other findings include:

⢠Students who are chronically absent in one year likely will be so in subsequent years and may miss more than a half-year of school over four or five years.

⢠Urban schools often have chronic absentee rates as high as one third of students, while poor rural areas are in the 25 percent range.

⢠While the problem affects youth from all backgrounds, children in poverty are more likely to be chronically absent. In Maryland, chronic absentee rates for poor students exceeded 30 percent, compared to less than 12 percent for students from more affluent families.

⢠Chronically absent students tended to be concentrated in a relatively small number of schools. In Florida, 52 percent of chronically absent students were in just 15 percent of schools.

⢠In some school districts, kindergarten absenteeism rates are nearly as high as those in high school.

⢠In a nationally representative data set, chronic absence in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first grade. The impact is twice as great for students from low-income families.

Despite the connections between absenteeism and lack of success in school, the report does offer an encouraging note about attendance.

"Students need to attend school daily to succeed," it says. "The good news of this report is that being in school leads to succeeding in school."

To reduce chronic absenteeism, the report suggests instituting aggressive attendance campaigns, and having the federal government, state departments of education, and school districts regularly measure and report the rates of chronic absenteeism and regular attendance for every school.

It also says mayors and governors must play critical roles in leading inter-agency task forces that bring health, housing, justice, transportation, and education agencies together to coordinate efforts to help every student attend every day.

To view the entire report, see more