States, Districts Turn to Chronic Absenteeism to Push Improvement

Many schools are coming to a realization that to tackle truancy, they need to focus on the subset of students who are considered "chronically absent," even when those absences are excused. Although what makes absenteeism chronic varies from state to state, it is typically defined as missing at least 10% of each academic year.

It's no wonder that chronic truancy is drawing so much attention. Each district's chronic absenteeism numbers are strongly linked to its dropout rates and student achievement levels. According to recent research, students who miss a lot of school are more likely to score lower on achievement tests, be left back a grade and drop out before graduation.

Adrienne Lu of Pew's Stateline blog reports that the current metrics used to measure truancy and report it to the federal government aren't sufficient to identify chronic truancy problems.

A school's average daily attendance, which is often reported to states and the federal government for funding or accountability reasons, says nothing about the attendance record of individual students. In a school with an average daily attendance of 90 percent, for example, 40 percent of students could be chronically absent.

A study last year by Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes at Johns Hopkins University's School of Education estimated that 10 percent to 15 percent of U.S. students, or between 5 million and 7.5 million of them, are chronically absent.

A few things are known about students who miss school on a chronic basis. They're more likely to be from lower-income families – exactly those who benefit most from extra instructional time – and urban districts have more chronic absentees than suburban districts. Even in large districts, large numbers of chronic absences tend to be limited to a small number of schools, according to new research out of Florida.

In Providence, R.I., for example, when teachers learned that parents working the overnight shift were failing to bring their children to school because they were falling asleep, a school created an early care and breakfast program to allow parents to drop off their children before they went to bed. In Springfield, Mass., schools created walking school buses — groups of children walking to school together led by parents and teachers – to help children get to school safely. States can also encourage schools to report attendance data to families, who may not be aware of the significance of missing school days, particularly for the youngest students.

According to Chang, at least eight states now use student data to examine chronic absence statewide: Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah.

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