First Look: Where chronic student absence is a problem and strategies to make progress

By Lauren Bauer, Becca Portman

On the first day of school, one of the teacher’s first tasks is taking attendance. In the days, weeks, and months to follow, some students will miss so much school that they will become what is considered chronically absent – commonly defined as missing 10 percent of school days over the course of the school year for any reason, including suspensions, excused, and unexcused absences.

Chronic absence is consequential: when students are absent from school and lose instructional time, it results in lower student achievement and predicts whether a student drops out before completing high school.

How pervasive is the problem of chronic absence? How many students in the U.S. are chronically absent; and, in what schools, districts, and states are these students concentrated?

In a newly-released report, “Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success,” Hedy Chang, Lauren Bauer, and Vaughan Byrnes offer a comprehensive analysis of nationwide data on chronic absence in U.S. schools and recommend tools and strategies for reducing chronic absence.

An interactive data map that we developed accompanies the report. This interactive map allows users to examine chronic absence rates at the school, district, and state levels. With this interactive, you can click or enter the name of a location – the school district you grew up in or your child’s school, for example – and find out its chronic absence rate.

Chronic absenteeism interactive

During the 2015-16 school year, one out of every four students attended school with high or extreme levels of chronic absence, and nearly 8 million students (15 percent) in the nation were chronically absent themselves. Slightly more than half of all chronically absent students were concentrated in schools with high (20–29 percent) or extreme (30 percent or higher) levels of chronic absence.

Chronic absence is a particular problem among students of color and in schools characterized by higher levels of student poverty. Schools serving children in special education, alternative education, and vocational education, as well as schools with higher levels of poverty, are much more likely to have extreme levels of chronic absence. Chronic absence disproportionately affects particular student populations, with higher rates evident for Native American, Hispanic, African-American, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students.

The interactive map lets everyone – from parents to policymakers – see exactly where chronic absence is a challenge and identifies the student groups that are most affected. Using the interactive map, users can explore these patterns for themselves. You can investigate rates of chronic absence for particular states and school districts, compare rates of chronic absence between two locations, and see how rates of chronic absence vary across different student populations in the same place.

The inclusion of chronic absence in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – as a required reporting item for school report cards and as a school accountability metric in the states that selected it – presents an opportunity to address chronic absence through accountability and transparency. But implementation requires accurately identifying who is chronically absent.

For the 36 states (and the District of Columbia) that are using chronic absence as an accountability metric, accurate data are critical because chronic absence rates will help states to identify schools in need of Targeted Support and Improvement or Comprehensive Support and Improvement. The interactive map can be used to jumpstart conversations about chronic absence for this school year, and will continue to be useful as a baseline against which newer chronic absence data can be compared in the coming years.

In the new report, Chang, Bauer, and Byrnes describe tools that are available to schools, districts and community partners to help in identifying the causes of chronic absenteeism and developing solutions tailored to local challenges and resources. In a Hamilton Project report released earlier this year, Bauer, Patrick Liu, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Jay Shambaugh lay out a framework for states as they oversee ESSA implementation, present analyses of the school and student factors that relate to chronic absence, and describe evidence-based strategies for schools as they work to reduce rates of chronic absence among students.

Chronic absence is a pervasive problem that affects critical outcomes for the absent student as well as everyone in their classroom. Transparency is the first step toward improving rates of chronic absence and subsequently student achievement and graduation rates. Research (summarized in the video below) and the resources released today shine a light on the problem of chronic absence and empower with evidence those working toward school improvement.

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