Robert Balfanz, a research professor at John Hopkins University, wants parents to be aware that even if their own children have good attendance records, being a student at a school with truancy problems can have an negative impact on all students' achievement.
According to Balfanz' report, titled The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation's Public Schools, parents who want to stay informed about their children's academic environment should broaden their focus from their own kids' attendance records and start paying attention to metrics such as the chronic absenteeism rate — a value that expresses the percentage of students who miss a month of more of school over the course of the academic year.
A high attendance rate has more of an effect on the overall quality of education than many realize, says Balfanz. He found that when a high number of students are chronically truant, teachers don't progress with course material at an optimal rate. Instead, they are forced to go over the same things several times to allow those who have been absent, and who are therefore behind, to catch up with their classmates. Failing to give students that opportunity could result in behavior problems from those who can't keep up and get bored and disruptive.
Monitoring chronic absenteeism is especially critical to ensuring every child's success in middle school and beyond, Balfanz said.
"It's during the middle grades that pathways to adult outcomes start taking shape," Balfanz said. "Students can either be launched toward college success or dropping out. Our research finds, for example, that students who miss a month or more of school in the sixth grade – that's just two days a month – are much more likely to drop out than graduate when they live in high-poverty environments."
Although schools are required to keep attendance records and to report stats like average daily attendance to both state and federal governments, Balfanz believes that this data is insufficient when attempting to figure out which schools have problems with chronic truancy. It is possible for a school to have high average attendance and still have a high number of students who are absent for a substantial part of the year, and he thinks schools should be required to report the number of students classified as chronically absent in addition to their ADA.
Today only Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island count their chronically absent children, and they all do it differently. This limited data leaves researchers like Balfanz to guess just how bad the problem of chronic absenteeism in American schools may be. Those six states report chronic absentee rates anywhere from 6 percent to 23 percent. By that count, it's not a huge leap to estimate that the national rate of chronic absenteeism hovers somewhere around 10 percent and that it could be as high as 15 percent. That would mean 5 million to 7.5 million children miss 20 or more days of school a year, Balfanz said.