The proportion of schools in which at least 20% of students were chronically absent increased from 11% to 13% between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 school years, according to a new report released on Friday by Attendance Works.
The percentage of schools with at least 30% of students being chronically absent — considered an extreme level — increased over that same period, from 9% to 11%. But Hedy Chang, executive director of the research and advocacy organization, suggested that the increase in rates of chronic absenteeism are largely due to better data collection as attention to the harmful effects of missing several days of school during the year become more widely known.
“There is more emphasis on chronic absence than ever before,” she said Tuesday during a call with reporters. “What it means is that we have to make sure people also know what to do with this data.”
Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ Civil Rights Data Collection, the group worked with the Everyone Graduates Center at The Johns Hopkins University and The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution to analyze absenteeism data from almost 95,000 schools across the country.
The report, “Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success,” shows that overall, 8 million students in the U.S. were chronically absent in 2015-16, which was 800,000 more students than two years earlier. At more than half of all schools in the U.S. — 58% — at least 10% of the students were chronically absent.
The researchers also released a detailed, interactive map showing chronic absenteeism rates down to the state and school levels. North Dakota has the lowest statewide absenteeism rate at 9.6%, and six states had rates of 20% or higher — Alaska, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Rhode Island. State-level reports showing how rates vary by poverty, type of community and type of school — such as vocational or alternative — are also available.
While high poverty is linked to higher rates of chronic absenteeism, Chang said there are also exceptions. In Mississippi, for example, chronic absenteeism affects a higher proportion of schools with poverty rates in the 50% to 74% range than in schools with at least 75% in poverty.
“That is a signal that there are some bright spots and some success stories,” Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center, said on the call.
But attention to the issue doesn't necessarily reduce rates. Oregon, for example, was one of the first states Chang worked with to calculate chronic absenteeism, but it still has a rate of over 23%. High poverty in rural areas and the state's large population of Native American tribes and communities are factors that could contribute to chronic absenteeism, she said in an email. Native Americans overall have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, but she pointed to the state's Tribal Attendance Pilot Project, now in nine school districts, as a promising strategy. State funding supports a family advocate who focuses on reducing chronic absenteeism in schools with Native-American students.
"Oregon is working on putting in statewide infrastructure to address chronic absence but that is still in mid-process," she added.
Some schools still not reporting accurate data
While Attendance Works defines being chronically absent as missing 10% of the school year — about 18 days — they used OCR’s definition of missing 15 days throughout the year because it was the only indicator that could be compared across the country, Chang said.
With the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) now requiring states to include rates of chronic absenteeism in their annual report cards, and 36 states, plus the District of Columbia, including chronic absenteeism as an indicator for accountability purposes, Chang said rates are likely to continue increasing as reporting becomes mandatory.
Some schools still report having no students chronically absent, which is likely inaccurate, Lauren Bauer, an economic studies fellow at The Hamilton Project, said on the call. In fact, half of the increase in chronic absenteeism rates nationally was due to schools reporting data in 2015-16 that they didn’t report in 2013-14, Bauer said.
Chang added that when she began studying the issue in 2007-08, there was “virtually no data available.” Most districts were still tracking attendance on paper. “They had attendance data, but it wasn’t being used to help people think about chronic absence,” she said. Slowly, they began developing and adding the information to longitudinal student data systems. But she added that even now, the issue is “still not deeply in the conscience of educators.”
Another ESSA-related change is that data will now be available every year through the Education Department’s EDFacts service, instead of every other year. EDFacts will also use the 10% definition — which equates to about two days a month — which Chang said can be used as an early warning sign for educators.
Chronic absenteeism in pre-K and the early grades, she noted, has been linked to reading below grade level in 3rd grade, not passing classes in middle school and not graduating in high school.
Seeking 'prevention-oriented approaches'
Districts and communities that have been successful at reducing chronic absenteeism rates have taken “public health” approaches to the issue, creating awareness campaigns and frequently monitoring the data, Chang said. Schools have also increased efforts in recent years to uncover the reasons why students are missing classes, such as illness, bullying and school climate issues, and even a lack of clean clothes.
“Some high-poverty schools have low chronic absence because they have adopted effective, prevention-oriented approaches that motivate daily attendance and help students and their families overcome challenges to getting to class,” the report says.
The report also includes recommendations for school leaders. In addition to identifying which students are chronically absent and looking for patterns in the data, the authors suggest creating a team responsible for attendance, working with community partners to address barriers families are experiencing, and including attendance targets in school improvement plans.
“What we know works is taking a positive, problem-solving approach,” Chang said. “It’s about making sure kids have the opportunity to learn.”