In a report out last week from FutureEd at Georgetown University, chronic absenteeism was highlighted as a key factor in the student achievement puzzle. The issue’s growing prominence may be due in part to its inclusion as a non-academic indicator in the majority of states’ ESSA plans. While there is wide agreement that missing school may have a negative impact on student achievement, there is less understanding of what causes chronic absenteeism and how to combat it.
Generally, the term “chronic absenteeism” refers to a student missing 10 percent or more of the school year, or approximately 18 school days. States including chronic absenteeism in their ESSA plans tend to utilize this standard definition, however, in its 2016 report on the issue , ED set the limit instead at 15 absences per school year.
Under this definition, ED found that approximately 13% of students in the country are chronically absent. Note that not all of these students were truant–these absences may have been excused or unexcused. While truancy focuses solely on unexcused absences, measures of chronic absenteeism incorporate student absences for any reason to emphasize the importance of all missed classroom time, no matter the reason.
Those attending elementary and middle schools have much lower rates of chronic absenteeism, while about one in four high schools has an extreme level of chronic absence, with over 30% of students absent more than 10% of the school year. At the middle school and high school level, chronic absenteeism may look different: a student may repeatedly skip a particular class or arrive to school late. While elementary students may be less likely to become chronically absent overall, they may be impacted by transportation, work, and lifestyle changes that effect the person that they depend on for transportation. At any age, certain students may be more likely to become chronically absent: black students and those with disabilities are most likely to struggle with chronic absences. Asian students and English language learners are significantly less likely to be chronically absent.
No matter the personal characteristics of the student, determining a reason for chronic absenteeism and intervening is crucial to preserving a student’s learning. Chronic absenteeism has been found to be a strong predictor of later academic troubles. For example, experiencing chronic absenteeism as early as sixth-grade has been tied to an increased chance of dropping out of high school. In the early elementary years, being chronically absent can impede a child’s literacy development. This may have long-lasting effects, as a child who does not learn to read fluently by third-grade is more likely to continue to struggle academically throughout their schooling.
Given the serious long-term consequences of chronic absenteeism, school leaders are always looking for new approaches. When searching for and implementing solutions, however, it must be understood that chronic absenteeism may be only a symptom of a more complex issue. Students dealing with situations like poverty or chronic health conditions are not likely to respond to a punishment-based approach to chronic absenteeism. Instead, tackling the issue of chronic absenteeism will likely involve the identification and management of challenges personal to each student’s home and school environment.
A number of programs attempt to aid schools with this process, but few have yet developed a strong evidence base. Some programs, like the Early Warning Intervention and Monitoring System and Check and Connect have shown promising results through systems that intervene early and pair attendance monitoring with support for students. For all students, early identification is critical to implementing changes and recovering lost learning. Utilizing an attendance system that defines chronic absenteeism by the percent of school missed rather than number of days missed can help identify chronically absent students early on, allowing time to make changes and implement supports, rather than awaiting an end-of-year count of absences that may allow a student to miss a significant amount of learning in a school year.
Now that chronic absenteeism has been included in the majority of states’ ESSA plans, there is an increasing importance placed on understanding its complex causes and effects. Mitigating high rates of chronic absenteeism will be a complex task, requiring that school leaders examine the unique challenges facing every student. However difficult, reducing chronic absenteeism is ensures that students benefit from a full school year’s learning.