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Report: 10 percent of students miss too much school

Chronic absences increasing the chances students will fall behind or drop out
Researchers estimate between 5 million and 7.5 million students nationwide are missing too much school. (Graphic: Attendance Works)
Researchers estimate between 5 million and 7.5 million students nationwide are missing too much school. (Graphic: Attendance Works)

An estimated one in 10 students in the United States are chronically absent from school, increasing the chances they will fall behind or drop out.

Students who miss 18 or more days of school are considered “chronically absent,” regardless of whether the absences are excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons, says a new policy brief from Attendance Works, a national and state initiative founded in 2010 that is aimed at addressing chronic absence to improve student success.

These numbers had never been investigated in depth until a 2012 study from Johns Hopkins University examined data from the six states that monitor chronic absence rates. Researchers estimate between 5 million and 7.5 million students nationwide are missing too much school.

Losing that instructional time correlates with poor academic achievement at all ages, the brief states. In the early grades, students who are not in class miss crucial language instruction, and are less likely to reach reading proficiency by grade 3. The likelihood of dropping out increases sharply if students are chronically absent in middle and high school.

“Administrators need to crunch the numbers—a lot of your average daily attendance and truancy numbers won’t tell you when there is a chronic absence problem,” says Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works. Data can show administrators which students are at risk, and if there are patterns, such as whether the absentee students live in the same neighborhood.

Many states and districts are starting programs to combat the problem, Chang says. New York City launched a campaign in 2010 targeting 50 public schools with high levels of absenteeism, and provides mentors to students who miss a lot of school. Elementary school students with mentors last year saw their absenteeism rates fall by 25 percent.

In the 2007-2008 school year at the Robert Bailey IV Elementary School, part of the Providence Public School District in Rhode Island, one in five students was chronically absent. Teachers called parents to investigate, and learned that parents working the night shift were falling asleep before taking their children to school.

The next year, the school opened an early care and breakfast program so parents could drop their children off as early as 6:30 a.m. Local organizations received a federal grant to provide transportation for students who needed it as well. The rate of chronically absent students at the school dropped from 21 percent to 10 percent since implementing these programs.

Administrators can do the following to keep students in school, Chang says:

  • Reward good and improved attendance with awards, extra recess time, or other incentives.
  • Engage the community, giving students, families, and residents information about the importance of regular attendance, and connecting students to social services if needed. A student may be ill and missing school due to a lack of affordable health care.
  • Use personalized, early outreach, talking to families as soon as the student is at risk.
  • Create a team to monitor attendance, and learn which students are chronically absent.
  • Investigate any systemic barriers, such as transportation issues, that may be preventing students from attending school.

“Use data and insights from teachers to find out why kids are missing school—the key to solving the problem is to learn why they aren’t there in the first place,” Chang says.