Chronic absenteeism is seldom tracked

2809961438_56d48f9969_zEven if your school has a solid attendance rate of 90% or more, you still may have a problem with chronic absenteeism and its corrosive effects on student achievement,  says a new report from The Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools.

A chronically absent student misses at least 10% of school days or a month of a year, according to the 2 most common definitions of chronic absenteeism.

“A school can have average daily attendance of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent, because on different days, different students make up that 90 percent,” says the report, The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools.

“Achievement, especially in math, is very sensitive to attendance, and absence of even two weeks during one school year matters.”

One of the challenges in addressing chronic absenteeism is that few schools, districts and departments of education collect data on it. Only 6 states report data on chronic absenteeism: Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island. Based on data from these states that keep records on chronic absenteeism, the rate of chronic absenteeism in the United States is from 10-15%, which means that as many as 5-7.5 million students are missing a significant amount of school.

“Because it is not measured, chronic absenteeism is not acted upon” say study authors, Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Barnes.

Who is chronically missing school?

Rates of chronic absenteeism are similar between boys and girls and among ethnic lines, but consistently higher among economically disadvantaged students and those in special education classes, according to the report. In general, chronic absenteeism is a much bigger problem at schools serving poor children and their families. The very children who benefit most from being in school every day are the ones who are disproportionately missing a lot of school. In poor rural areas, 1 in 4 students can miss at least a month’s worth of school.

Attendance also fluctuates based on age. The highest rates of chronically absent students are in the lowest and highest grades. Chronic absence seems to rise in middle school and continue into 12th grade, where seniors often have the highest rates of all. Students attend school most regularly between grades 3 and 5 . Attendance dips at transition points (entering school, going to middle school and high school), suggesting that students and families need time to adjust to changes, according to the report.

Over the course of a child’s educational career, school time lost to chronic absence can be quite significant. In Florida, the 20% of students in a 6th-grade cohort who missed the most days over their middle and high school years, missed on average almost one full year of school.

Students miss school for many reasons, according to the report, but these can be divided 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, harassment and embarrassment.
  • 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 from skipping school.

What can schools do about chronic absenteeism.

Since children from poor areas benefit most from regular attendance, providing a successful strategy to keep these kids in school would go a long way to leading these students out of poverty. “This alone, even without improvements in the American education system, will drive up achievement, high school graduation and college attainment rates,” the study authors contend. Programs like Boston’s “Diplomas Now,” New York’s “Chronic Absenteeism Task Force” and the nation-wide “Attendance Works,” have all demonstrated success in combating absenteeism with some of the following strategies:

  • Weekly measurement of absenteeism.
  • Development of a diagnostic capacity to understand the reasons for school absence
  • Problem-solving measures to address these issues
  • Development of a community response that often includes a second shift of adults in the schools
  • Recognition of and awards for good attendance
  • A commitment to learn what programs work and to expand and replicate those programs

A Diplomas Now school in Boston sponsors attenDANCE as an incentive for students to attend at least 95% of the 45 days in the second quarter. Some children began regularly tracking their own attendance to be sure they would be invited and one student who was under a court mandate to attend school earned perfect attendance so he could be included.

In New York City, more than 30,000 students get wake-up and get-to-school calls from Michael Jordan, Whoopi Goldberg or one of the Yankees as part of an initiative of Mayor bloomberg’s Chronic Absenteeism Task Force. More than 4,000 NYC students have Success Mentors who consistently talk to them about coming to school on time every day. Parents also have access to their students’ attendance data and an “ask for help getting my child to school” feature.

One other tip that is easy for schools to implement:  Make sure your lateness policies and penalties are not so onerous that they encourage students who will be late to skip the whole day of school instead.

Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes, The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools, May 2012.

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