37 States Are Using Their ESSA Plans to Crack Down on Chronic Student Absences. So How Will They Do It?

Washington, D.C.

Chronic absenteeism in schools is like bacteria in hospitals: an invisible force undoing all the good work done elsewhere, as one researcher posited.

It doesn’t matter how strong the teaching or curriculum or anything else in a school is if students aren’t there to learn it, Bob Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and head of the Everyone Graduates initiative, said at a panel Tuesday at Georgetown University.

Chronic absenteeism, usually defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days per year, is linked to lower academic achievement as young as preschool and kindergarten; in middle school, it can be an early warning that a student is likely to drop out. About 14 percent of all students were chronically absent in the 2013–14 school year, according to data the Education Department released last year. That number rises to about 1 in 5 students in high school.

For years, schools had used average daily attendance, but by that measure, up to a quarter of students can be chronically absent but still show average daily attendance as being over 90 percent, Balfanz said.

Now, though, many states are taking a look at chronic absence. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia are using some measure of it in their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, according to a new report from FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown that hosted Tuesday’s panel attended by roughly two dozen educators, policymakers, and others.

ESSA also will require all states to report the data, even if it isn’t used for accountability.

The metric meets ESSA’s standard for measures of student success in that it’s reliable, can show a real difference between schools and subgroups of students, and is tied to student achievement, Phyllis Jordan, one of the authors of the report, said.

(The 74: Hard to Game, Easy to Use: Chronic Absenteeism Gains Ground as New ESSA Measure of Student Success)

States should be setting standard definitions of what counts as an absence, Jordan said. For example, how many periods in a middle or high school day counts as a day?

They also will have to grapple with what goal to set for schools, and many states haven’t done so in their plans, she said.

Setting too stringent a goal could create a backlash like the one that arose in the wake of No Child Left Behind’s requirement that all students test as “proficient,” she said.

“There’s a danger in setting that goal too high that you get people either starting to tune out or starting to game the system or starting to revolt, as they did with testing,” she said.

The few states that have laid out targets will have trouble meeting them, the report points out. Only 20 percent of schools in Ohio would meet that state’s goal of having no more than 5 percent of students chronically absent, for example.

Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that promotes tracking of chronic absenteeism, said that having 5 percent of students chronically absent is an achievable goal, though schools will need to set intermediate goals to reach that, particularly if they’re starting with very high rates. They’ll also need support from the state and school district.

When 20 to 30 percent of students are chronically absent, it has an effect on the rest of the students who are there, she said.

She recalled visiting one high school that had such an absence problem that science teachers couldn’t plan any labs that assumed students would be in the lab for more than one day — a real problem given that many concepts can’t be taught in just one day.

“There is a direct connection to high levels of churn and your ability for every kid in a classroom to succeed,” she said.

Though data to compile chronic absenteeism statistics has been around forever — every report card lists the number of days a student was absent — it’s a relatively new data point that researchers are just beginning to study how to tackle, the panelists said.

A very high level of chronic absence probably indicates larger problems in the community, like transportation, health, or violence, “that are not within the reach of schools to address by themselves,” Chang said.

Jordan recalled research in Baltimore that found that one-third of chronically absent students had asthma but no plan in place at home for controlling it, for example.

Researchers with Whirlpool also found that installing washing machines in schools boosted attendance among low-income students less likely to attend class with smelly clothes.

(The 74: Clean Sweep: How Washers in Schools Boost Attendance and Improve Day-to-Day Life for the Neediest Students)

Basic, high-level interventions, like drawing attention to the issue and urging students to miss less than two days of school a month, can have pretty big initial impacts, Chang said. After that, it will likely take a more in-depth effort to work with students who have some of those tougher health or transportation challenges or need to change long-standing behaviors, she said.

Data systems haven’t quite caught up, but the “next generation” of data should look at students who are chronically absent year after year, Balfanz said. Some students are missing one whole year of school over five years, he said.

“That’s going to be very difficult for that kid to make it,” he said.

Of the states using chronic absenteeism, 27 are measuring how many students are missing more than 10 percent of school, the threshold most research has tied to severe adverse effects on academics. Looking at attendance data early in the school year can give schools a heads-up as to which students might meet that figure so early interventions can be implemented, Balfanz said.

Rhode Island will also measure chronic teacher absences, a decision the FutureEd researchers said “makes sense” given recent research from Columbia, Duke, and Harvard that found that student achievement dropped as more teachers were absent.

(The 74: New Study Finds 1 in 4 Teachers Chronically Absent From Classrooms; Problem Is Three Times Worse in Traditional Schools)

Montana and Indiana set more ambitious metrics. Montana will measure how many students are missing 5 percent or fewer days, and Indiana will measure how many attend 97 percent or more of school days, according to the report.

Another four states — Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, and West Virginia — plus the District of Columbia are instead counting how many students attend at least 90 percent of days. Schools, students and parents may interpret that configuration as permission to miss up to 10 percent of school without adverse effects, the report warns.

Three states — Alabama, Hawaii, and Nevada — are setting the number of days absent rather than the percent, which doesn’t allow states to account for variance in the length of school years. A typical school year is 180 days, but there are often exceptions, like in Oklahoma, where some districts have had to close one day a week because of budget cuts, or in Florida and Texas, where state education leaders waived some required days for schools that had to close in the wake of recent hurricanes.

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