Chronic absenteeism is pervasive: as many as one in six students in the United States miss enough school to be considered chronically absent, according to the US Department of Education. The negative effects of absenteeism on a student’s education can be profound, and they often carry into adulthood.
The harmful impact of chronic absenteeism threatens all students, but the risks are not borne equally. Students of color, students who live in poverty, and students with chronic health conditions or disabilities all experience disproportionately high absence rates.
Examining the causes of absenteeism and the effects it has on school performance, and ultimately life outcomes, provides a deeper understanding of why school attendance is so important.
Why Is School Attendance Important?
School attendance is a powerful predictor of student outcomes. In fact, irregular attendance can be a better predictor of whether students will drop out of school before graduation than test scores, according to the US Department of Education.
The correlation between attendance and dropout rates has important ramifications that go beyond the classroom. Compared to their peers who graduate, students who fail to complete their high school education are more likely to live in poverty, suffer poor health, and become involved in the criminal justice system.
Defining and Assessing Chronic Absenteeism in Schools
Chronic absenteeism is widely defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year. Schools generally recognize three categories of absences:
- Excused absences are those with a valid reason and that have been communicated to the school by a parent. Student illness or other medical conditions are the most common types of excused absence; other reasons include religious observances, medical appointments, and family emergencies.
- Unexcused absences, or truancy, occur when students miss school without a valid reason. Examples include deliberately skipping school as well as missing school for reasons deemed invalid by the school, such as oversleeping or missing the bus.
- Disciplinary absences are a result of school suspension.
While these categories of absences are relatively consistent from one institution to another, school attendance policies and practices vary. For example, some school policies make little or no distinction between excused and unexcused absences. Similarly, school suspensions may be counted as absences by some school districts but not by others.
Such discrepancies speak to the challenge of collecting accurate and consistent attendance data, which is critical for education researchers and policymakers. Two sources of US public school attendance data––the Civil Rights Data Collection and attendance reporting under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015––merit closer examination.
Civil Rights Data Collection
Arguably the most important study of absenteeism data collected in the US was the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), a biennial report from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) division. The first CRDC study to collect absenteeism data was conducted during the 2013-2014 school year and released in 2016. It marked the first national study of chronic absences and provided hard evidence of the negative effects of chronic absenteeism.
Chronic absenteeism data is no longer collected by OCR (the Education Department continues to collect absence data through its EdFacts Division), but information collected about absences as part of the 2018 CRDC (2015-2016 school year data) continues to serve as a valuable resource for researchers and policymakers studying absenteeism.
The shift from OCR-collected data to EdFacts also marked an important change to attendance data: the definition of chronic absenteeism went from missing at least 15 days of school in a year to missing 10 percent or more of a school year. This change helps to standardize the metric used by federal, state, and local education authorities.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, a reauthorization of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, included important requirements for school absenteeism reporting. The law requires all states to include chronic absence data in their school report cards.
It also requires states to select five metrics by which to measure performance in their schools; four of the performance indicators must be focused on academic achievement, but the fifth is a nonacademic metric. Chronic absenteeism was chosen as the nonacademic indicator by 36 states and the District of Columbia.
Such a broad adoption of absenteeism as a performance indicator reflects growing recognition of the importance of attendance. It also lays the groundwork for addressing the problem. ESSA state plans include strategies for using federal funds to improve attendance through such measures as improved health services, greater family engagement, and teacher training.
School Attendance Facts
Even a cursory look at national attendance data reveals that the problem is widespread. The following attendance facts come from the CRDC that was released in 2018:
- More than seven million students in the US––16 percent of the student population––missed 15 or more days of school.
- Approximately 800 school districts reported more than 30 percent of their students missed at least three weeks of school.
- Chronic absenteeism rates are highest in high schools, where about one in five students is chronically absent.
- More than 20 percent of students were chronically absent in six states (Alaska, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington) and the District of Columbia.
- Every state had schools that reported 10 percent or more of students as chronically absent.
A survey of national absenteeism data also highlights inequalities across school districts and among students. Many of the factors that are known to contribute to chronic absenteeism––limited transportation, poor health, lack of safety––are more prevalent in marginalized communities and areas of poverty.
The 2018 CRDC shows significant differences in the rates of absenteeism experienced by different races and ethnicities. Students of color generally have higher absenteeism than their white counterparts:
- White students, 14.5 percent
- Black students, 20.5 percent
- Hispanic students, 17 percent
- American Indian students, 26 percent
Asian students are the only nonwhite student population with an absenteeism rate, 8.6 percent, that is lower than that of white students.
While a clear correlation between poverty and absenteeism exists on average, not all high-poverty schools have high chronic absence rates. Some have been successful in helping families overcome attendance challenges by using prevention-oriented approaches, according to Attendance Works, an initiative that advocates for improved absence data collection and policy.
One prevention-oriented program that has proven effective is the formation of “attendance teams,” cross-functional groups that work to improve school attendance by monitoring attendance data, identifying causes for absenteeism, and coordinating prevention and support strategies. Typically led by a principal, an attendance team can include teachers, school nurses, guidance counselors, social workers, parent representatives, and other stakeholders.
The success of such strategies, particularly within schools that are at high risk for chronic absenteeism, underscores the importance of identifying schools at risk for high absence rates and taking steps to address the problem.
Causes of Poor School Attendance
Many factors are associated with poor school attendance:
- Physical health issues. Health conditions such as asthma, influenza, diabetes, tooth decay, and obesity are all associated with higher rates of student absenteeism. Nearly 10 percent of children aged four to14 are diagnosed with asthma, a leading cause of school absenteeism. Asthma accounts for a third of all days of missed instruction, according to Attendance Works.
- Bullying. Approximately 20 percent of students in the US aged 12 to 18 experience bullying. Bullying can include emotional abuse (name-calling, insults, teasing), the threat of harm or actual physical abuse (being pushed, tripped, or beaten), destruction of property, and ostracization (exclusion, being made the subject of rumors or lies). In the US, low socioeconomic status is a common factor in bullying, and immigrant youth are more likely to be bullied than locally born youth, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
- Socioeconomic hardship. Socioeconomic hardship can lead to unstable housing or homelessness, as well as limited transportation resources. One child in six lives in poverty in the US, according to Children International.
Academic struggles can also cause students to become disengaged with school, which is one of the reasons that students with learning differences struggle with absenteeism.
Developmental Delays, Learning Disabilities, and Related Disorders
A study conducted by the National Center on Educational Outcomes found that elementary school students with disabilities served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were 1.5 times as likely to be chronically absent as their peers without disabilities. High school students with disabilities served by IDEA were 1.4 times as likely to be chronically absent. (IDEA addresses a broad range of mental and physical impairments, including developmental delays, learning disabilities, and related disorders.) Students with learning disabilities drop out of school at nearly three times the rate for all students, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).
NCLD notes that students with learning and attention issues commonly experience bullying, struggle with feelings of failure, and often find it difficult to gain acceptance among their peers. All of these factors can put them at high risk for missing school.
A report from the US Department of Health and Human Services also links chronic school absenteeism and selected developmental disabilities. Children aged five to 17 with an intellectual disability had the highest prevalence of chronic school absenteeism at 14 percent, followed by children with autism spectrum disorder at 9 percent, those with other developmental delays at 7.2 percent, and those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at 5.2 percent.
Mental Health and School Attendance
Mental health issues are among the factors that contribute to chronic absences, according to Attendance Works. Diagnoses of anxiety disorder and depression are not uncommon in children, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), which reports that as many as 2.8 million children aged 12 to 17 in the US have at least one major depressive episode in a year. Approximately 80 percent of children with an anxiety order and 60 percent with depression are not treated, according to ADAA.
Chronic absenteeism has also been linked to trauma, which can include experiences ranging from abuse and neglect to the loss of a loved one. More than half of students will experience a traumatic event by the time they reach adulthood, according to Waterford.org.
Effects of Poor School Attendance
When children are absent from school, they miss out on consistent instruction that is needed to develop basic skills. Children in early grades are particularly susceptible to falling behind in fundamental reading skills, which can have a snowball effect that impacts future learning.
Children who have learning and thinking differences can be especially vulnerable to the impact of absenteeism because missing school reduces opportunities for any interventions that might be necessary. If teachers fail to realize that they need an intervention, they are more likely to attribute a learning difficulty to absenteeism, essentially confusing the symptom for the cause.
Students who fail to read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than students who achieve proficiency to drop out of high school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, citing a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Adults without a high school education generally earn lower incomes and experience higher unemployment than their peers who do earn a high school diploma, putting them at greater risk for poverty.
Poor attendance can also have a negative effect on social and emotional development. For example, students who are chronically absent in the early years of their education may not learn crucial school readiness skills (abilities such as critical thinking, problem solving, and creative thinking), and can fall behind their peers in social-emotional development. Excessive absences are also associated with lower scores on standardized tests, which typically assess primary skills and concepts.
While students pay the highest cost if they miss too much school, high absence rates also put a burden on teachers. Making up for lost instruction adds to their workload, and the valuable classroom time it takes up is a detriment to all students.
Addressing Chronic Absenteeism
Just as chronic absenteeism has no single cause, it has no simple solution either. Parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers can all play a role in addressing high absence rates and improving children’s chances of receiving complete and effective education.
Strategies for Parents
Parents who are concerned that their child has a problem with school attendance can employ several strategies:
- Talk with the child. Conversations are the first step to understanding root causes and working toward a solution.
- Contact the school. Teachers, counselors, and administrators may be able to provide additional information that helps determine what is causing a child to miss school. Contacting the school also starts a conversation that can be mutually beneficial, and it demonstrates engagement.
- Consider an evaluation for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan. Both programs can provide special accommodations and support for students who are struggling with disabilities.
- Set attendance goals with the child. Creating a plan and tracking progress can encourage better attendance and provide opportunities for conversations and support. Simple steps such as making sure a child gets enough sleep and taking steps to prepare for school the day or night before can also be effective.
Strategies for Educators
Teachers, administrators, and policymakers can work together to address chronic absenteeism. Such efforts begin with gaining a better understanding of the importance of attendance:
- Raise awareness. Training programs can help educators and administrators understand the importance of attendance and the long-term effects of chronic absenteeism.
- Report and study absenteeism data. Identifying students at high risk and the most prevalent causes of absenteeism helps create evidence-based solutions to attendance problems. Identifying problems early is crucial for success.
- Develop trauma-informed practices. Schools equipped to provide emotional support and resources to students who have suffered trauma can address a major cause of absenteeism.
- Set clear expectations. Both students and their parents need clear guidelines about attendance rules and the consequences for missing school.
- Schedule a meeting or visit with family. Reaching out to families personally (in person or using technology that allows social distancing) can be used to develop an individualized attendance plan for families.
- Recognize good attendance. Celebrating students with good attendance and demonstrating concern (rather than frustration or dismissiveness) when students struggle with attendance creates a positive environment that encourages students.
- Implement intervention programs. Some students may require counseling, mentorship, or behavioral interventions.
- Engage with specialists for case management. Specialists who can offer assistance might include child welfare agency staff, mental health professionals, or other social support system employees.
Turning Negatives Into Positives
Parents and educators who do the difficult work of improving student attendance have powerful motivation. Every negative impact associated with chronic absenteeism has a positive corollary for high attendance. Students who regularly attend school and graduate from high school build a foundation for more positive life outcomes:
- Better academic performance
- More work options and earning potential
- Greater opportunities for higher education
- Higher civic engagement
- More developed life skills that positively influence health and economic decisions
However great the challenge, improving attendance directly contributes to more equitable education and better student outcomes.
Empowering More Effective and Equitable Education
Chronic absenteeism is one of the most critical challenges facing educators. Addressing such a prevalent and significant barrier to education requires administrators with exceptional leadership and policy expertise.
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US Department of Health and Human Services, National Health Statistics Reports, “Chronic School Absenteeism Among Children With Selected Developmental Disabilities: National Health Interview Survey, 2014–2016”