Researchers urge states to take serious look at attendance data

K-12 Daily
By Alisha Kirby
October 1, 2018

(District of Columbia) Schools struggling to close achievement gaps between student subgroups should take a deeper look at their attendance data, as new research has found linkage between absenteeism rates and some demographic factors such as race, ethnicity, language, and poverty and disability status.

For instance, English language learners and Native American students were the most likely to miss three or more days of school in a month’s time, according to the Economic Policy Institute–those same students who missed school more frequently noticeably saw their academic performance get worse.

Students only have to miss two days of school each month to become chronically absent.

Economist Emma García said that as more states have committed to reducing chronic absenteeism as part of their state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, more data is being collected, and school officials should look more closely into student-level attendance to identify problem areas and specific interventions.

“Given that most states are using ‘chronic absenteeism’ as a metric in their ESSA accountability plans, understanding the drivers of absenteeism,  what the characteristics of those experiencing higher rates of absenteeism are–and how absenteeism affects student performance is more important than ever,” García said in a statement. “The move in education policy toward widening accountability indicators to include indicators of ‘school quality or student success,’ such as absenteeism, is important and useful.”

Since the passage of ESSA in 2015, 36 states and the District of Columbia have named chronic absenteeism as a student success metric in their state accountability plans. Chronic absenteeism is associated with lower academic performance in school, as well as long-term negative impacts, such as an increased likelihood of being incarcerated at some point.

Using National Assessment of Education Progress data from 2003 and 2015, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute found that 2015, one-in-five eighth graders missed three or more days a month—a proxy for chronic absenteeism.

Absenteeism rates varied significantly among different groups. Both English language learners and Native American youth were the most likely to miss three or more days of school per month–both at about 24 percent. This was followed by Black students, at 23 percent, Hispanic children at 19 percent, white students at about 18 percent, and Asian children at just under 9 percent.

Rates were also pointedly impacted by disability and poverty status. Researchers found that 26 percent of students with an individualized education plan missed three or more days of school in the month prior to taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress math assessment. The same was found among more than 40 percent of students eligible for free- or reduced-price meals.

The study showed that, among students missing more than 10 days of school, the shares of those eligible for free lunch and students with disabilities were more than double the shares of higher income and non-IEP students.

Researchers concluded that policymakers would have to dig deeper into the data they collect to not only identify which student groups are struggling with poor attendance, but to determine steps that can be taken to address the issues they face.

Low-income students may be dealing with health issues, food insecurity, or a lack of access to reliable transportation among numerous other factors—many of which districts have already begun addressing by partnering with local health clinics, implementing food pantry programs and even working with ridesharing services to get kids to class.

Authors of the report noted that poor attendance negatively impact all students, however, and that districts must work to get all children to school in order to improve student outcomes.

“The bottom line is that the more days of school a student misses, the poorer his or her performance will be, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, or poverty status,” Elaine Weiss, former national coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and one of the lead authors of the report, said in a statement. “In order to help students succeed in school, policymakers should make reducing absenteeism a top priority.”