America’s Truancy Problem: The L.A. County Example

9.17.10 – RiShawn Biddle – Two hundred seventy-two thousand Los Angeles County students were truant during the 2008-2009 school year. Let that sink in. Two hundred seventy-two thousand kids. That is 16 percent of all the students attending schools in the heart of Southern California, or 1,509 students skipping school without an excuse every school day.

We know where many of these kids will end up: They will become high school dropouts. What is astounding is that thanks to California education officials and the state legislature, we even know the truancy rate at all. Most states are ignoring the importance of reporting credible, honest truancy numbers, leaving unaddressed a critical symptom of the nation’s dropout crisis.

Within the past five years, researchers such as Robert Balfanz have proven that truancy is one of the foremost symptoms of America’s educational crisis and a primary indicator of whether a student will drop out or graduate from school. As Balfanz, Lisa Herzog and Douglas Mac Iver pointed out in a 2007 study, a sixth-grader missing a fifth of the school year has just a 13 percent chance of graduating six years later. In elementary school, truancy is a sign of parenting issues. In later grades, truancy is an indicator that a child has given up on learning after years of poor teaching, lousy curricula and lack of engagement (and caring) by teachers and principals.

Yet, as with graduation rates a decade ago, states and school districts do an abysmal job of tracking truancy (and school attendance overall) and offers misleading statistics on the true size of the problem. California offers a decent start on how to solve the latter. But it will require better data standards and data systems to make real progress.

The problem starts with the statistics itself. Most states calculate attendance by dividing the total number of days missed by students by the total number of days they are supposed to attend (usually 180 days multiplied by enrollment). This metric, used largely for school funding, is great for district coffers. But it’s terrible for addressing truancy. Why? It hides the levels of truancy plaguing a school because it includes all unexcused absences, not just the set number of days under which a student is considered by law to be truant. Add in the fact that tardiness (or excess lateness by a student) is added into the attendance rate and one doesn’t get the full sense of a truancy problem. After all, one reacts differently to a 93 percent attendance rate (which makes it seem as if most kids are attending school) than a rate that shows that 16 percent of students are truant (which is more-accurate and distressing).



  1. Darleen

    Yes, these numbers are more than alarming. And yes, we have truancy laws. But school is not a prison sentence. Our children should want to go there. School should be a place optimism and opportunity. We're obviously doing it wrong. Just getting these kids to sit in seats is not going to fix the problem. They are not going to school because they see no reason to.

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September 17th, 2010

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