More than 80 percent of students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade read below grade level after third grade. Source: Applied Survey Research, May 2011

More than 80 percent of students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade read below grade level after third grade. Source: Applied Survey Research, May 2011

Backed by the knowledge that the first symptom of academic failure is an empty desk, state education officials are putting a priority on battling chronic absenteeism by enlisting support across state agencies.

The California Department of Education convened a first-of-its-kind forum last month of state and local experts from school districts, health and social services agencies, district attorneys’ offices and advocacy groups. The goal: to get them to work cooperatively to keep children in school.   

“We can have our best teachers in place, but if our students are not there, it doesn’t make a difference,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in his opening remarks, where he stressed that schools alone cannot solve this problem.

A 2010 California law defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of the typical 180-day school year, the equivalent of about one month of school. Most states use a similar standard and researchers estimate that nationwide, as many as 7.5 million students a year are chronically absent. Chronic absenteeism includes excused and unexcused absences and out-of-school suspensions. 

California is one of five states that does not keep a statewide tally of chronically absent students, according to a report released last year by the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, but officials believe the state’s chronic absenteeism rate at least matches the national average.  

Among students who are chronically absent for two years any time between eighth and 12th grade, only half are likely to graduate, according to Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based national research and advocacy organization, which helped organize the May 28 meeting in Sacramento.

“If you want to know in third grade if a child is going to drop out of school, chronic absence is an indicator,” Dr. Robert Ross, president and chief executive officer of The California Endowment, which has a focus on children’s and wellness issues, told participants at the meeting.

Poverty at the root

It’s not just high school students playing hooky. Teens do have the highest rate of chronic absences, but after that, research shows that some of the highest levels of absenteeism are in elementary school, starting in kindergarten, where attendance is not mandatory.

Nearly one out of every 10 kindergarten students in the United States is chronically absent, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Research indicates that lost learning time in the early years can set students up for academic failure. Only 17 percent of California children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade scored proficient or better on the California standardized tests in English language arts, compared to 64 percent who attended school regularly, according to a 2011 report prepared for Attendance Works.

Even what appear to be high attendance rates may mask a chronic absenteeism problem. A review of six elementary schools in the Oakland Unified School District by Attendance Works illustrates the situation. Each of the schools had an average daily attendance rate of 95 percent. When researchers looked deeper, they found that, in five of the campuses, the same 12 percent to 16 percent of students were absent most often.

Being chronically absent lowered scores on the math California Standards Test for Redwood City elementary school students, regardless of how well they performed the previous year.  (Source: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, Stanford University).

Being chronically absent lowered scores on the math California Standards Test for Redwood City elementary school students, regardless of how well they performed the previous year. Source: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, Stanford University

Poverty contributes significantly to absenteeism. Asthma is the leading cause of school absences, and rates of the disease are disproportionately high among low-income students. Asthma accounts for more than 1.6 million missed days of school in California and 14 million missed days nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet health professionals say asthma should almost never prevent a child from going to school because it can be kept under control with adequate health care.

One of the goals of the forum in Sacramento was to change the belief that schools can solve chronic absenteeism on their own and to promote collaboration to find solutions.

“This is not about piling on the schools,” Ross said. “This is about how can we help and how can we be smarter.”

He urged the agencies present to develop data sharing procedures that could be used as an “early warning system” to identify and help students who appear to be at risk of becoming chronically absent.

“A child who is chronically absent should elicit the same response as a kid who shows up at school with suspicious bruises,” Ross said. “The pediatrician in me says this is a signal of social-emotional unwellness that needs attention.”

Building on success

Some successful models already exist.

In Alameda County, the district attorney’s office collaborated with the courts and probation department to start the Truancy Referral Program. The program brings together public health and social services officials, the juvenile justice system and community service organizations to provide help when a student is chronically absent, whether it is due to chronic illness or homelessness.

Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick said without intervention, she often ends up seeing these young students when they’re older and have dropped out of school.

“Nearly every criminal defendant we dealt with had that common thread of not graduating from high school and being chronically absent,” Drenick said.

Drenick also started the Truancy Court Program in Alameda County 10 years ago to work with parents of chronically absent students. Parents are referred to Truancy Court after violating previous orders to keep their children in school. The Truancy Court sees parents only after they’ve already been referred to and violated orders from their school-based School Attendance Review Team, as well as violated orders from the next level of intervention, their local district’s School Attendance Review Board. The boards are composed of parents, school officials and representatives of law enforcement, welfare and health departments, as well as community members.

The goal of the state-mandated attendance boards is to keep students in school, and they have authority to enforce the state’s compulsory attendance laws. However, they tend to be reactive, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works. Their biggest stick is the threat of referring parents to the courts, where they can face fines of up to $1,000, be ordered to perform community service or, in the most extreme cases, be sentenced to jail time.

In Alameda County’s Truancy Court, Drenick said they try not be punitive and instead work harder with parents in the most difficult cases.

Still, she said the gravity of being brought before a judge adds some might. “Eighty-six percent of the children whose parents come through our attendance court return to class,” Drenick said. “Using the power of the court can really do a lot of good.”

The most effective SARBs don’t just hand down punishments. They have strong support from superintendents and principals who help prevent absences with very clear attendance rules, outreach to parents and ensuring that schools are safe places for students, free from bullying, drug and alcohol abuse and gang violence.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who sent a representative to the Sacramento forum, recently began a similar effort to connect law enforcement with school districts and parents when students are first identified as chronically absent, instead of being brought in when it’s time to prosecute the parents.

These cooperative strategies, which are designed to quickly link chronically absent students with the help and support they need from the proper government agency or nonprofit organization, could become more widely used in California if nine school districts seeking a federal waiver from some provisions of No Child Left Behind are successful in their efforts.

In its application, the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, as the consortium of districts calls itself, is proposing to create a new accountability rating system called the School Quality Improvement Index, to replace the state’s Academic Performance Index, which is based mainly on test scores. Chronic absenteeism would be one of the criteria of the group’s School Quality Improvement Index.

California Department of Education officials are hopeful that more districts will create collaborative projects based on the ideas shared at the meeting. In September, Attendance Works will try to give that process a jolt by launching its first Attendance Awareness Month to coincide with the opening of school.


Filed under: Featured, High School Completion, K-12 Reform, Poverty, Reporting & Analysis · Tags:

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  1. navigio says:

    I happen to believe that parents themselves can play an extremely important role in attendance levels, especially at the elementary level. And I dont mean the parents of the kids independently (though clearly thats also important), but the culture of acceptance and social interaction that exists at drop off and pick up time (I hate those terms because they feel like they imply cars). A happy, positive and welcoming environment is something people don’t only notice but also respond to. It increases kids’ desires to be at school, and parents’ desires to participate and even to be on time. Although it is difficult to create when it does not exist, and be a long time in the making, the good news is it’s the one thing parents really have direct control over. Make an effort. Talk to someone you’ve never talked to in the morning. You’re kids notice this and everyone benefits from it.

  2. CarolineSF says:

    Truancy in early grades is about parents who don’t get the kids to school, so it’s an entirely different animal than older kids’ choosing to skip school.

    In my observation, the travel thing is interesting. Immigrants often take fairly long stretches to go see family — I won’t analyze but just observe — these tend to be working-class families. But the wealthy travel when they want too, and the high-end privates have to be OK with it because the clientele expects it.

    But there are also just overwhelmed, stressed and dysfunctional families — mostly low-income — who just cannot get it together to get the kids to school.

    Observations based on experience in diverse urban and high-poverty school districts and a diverse circle of friends and relatives.

    The point about early-grade truancy correlating with low test scores is so riddled with confounding factors that it’s kind of meaningless.

  3. JK says:

    Okay, school may not be totally engaging for everyone, but I know it’s a lot more engaging than when I was in middle and high school (public and private) in the 70′s and 80′s. We NEVER did group work, creative projects, art, or any sort of assessment other than a test or essay. There were no anti-bullying programs, fun assemblies, or spirit days. Still, staying home from school was not an option unless I was seriously sick, and my parents certainly never planned a vacation during the school year. If you value education, you make sure your kid is in school, whether he or she is thrilled to be there or not.

  4. el says:

    Coming back around to kindergarten, the issues there from my understanding are often travel related. Families aren’t yet used to not planning travel during the school year, and with young children, they may not have networks in place for child care if they have unavoidable travel (business, family emergency, etc).

    Highly stressed families may also be moving a lot and having other issues that create absences.

    (And finally, there’s the whole Exciting New Germs aspect of primary school.)

    Obviously, we want those kids in school, and we want parents to view attendance as important. I know in our local elementary that these patterns of the most at-risk kids also having very high absenteeism is a very significant problem that snowballs for kids that are already behind.

    I would suggest considering these issues separately. That is, we need to do what we can to encourage parents to bring their kids to school and to stop the absenteeism – it’s important for the kids and it disrupts the class. But, not all the issues are under the control of the school or even the parent, and it’s worth thinking about if there’s something we can do support these young kids for the times when they are missing school. Would Saturday school type makeups be helpful? Is there a way to make independent study attractive and effective for these situations?

    But these are just my guesses. It would be good to have data to better understand why kids are absent in K and 1st grade, because otherwise we may be solving the wrong problem. Merely adding legal pressure to the parents could perversely have the effect of having those kids withdrawn from kindergarten, for example, which seems unlikely to improve academic aptitude.

  5. el says:

    “this is a signal of social-emotional unwellness that needs attention.”

    I’m going to completely agree with this, but I’m going to turn this around 180 degrees.

    This whole article is about adding pressure to parents and students to get to school. Sometimes that is needed. That’s not what I’m going to talk about, though.

    If school is a pleasant place to be, the kids will want to go. This is especially true for high school kids, who for the most part have autonomy to get themselves to school if they want to.

    I ask every administrator to first ask, “Why does school suck so much for this student that he does not want to be here?”

    Let’s talk about the asthma example. Implicit there is that parents maybe aren’t getting the kid the right medications, certainly a significant issue with our broken health care system. Even I, an upper middle class parent, have had difficulty with this at times.

    But what about the school environment? Running right now on EdSource is this story about terrible ventilation in classrooms and how it could reduce absenteeism. My husband has asthma, and there are certain environments where he thrives and others that make him feel constantly unwell and barely able to function. When we have classrooms that are hot and stuffy or cold, and with the reduced autonomy of school, they can make a normal day miserable – let alone a day where you’re having allergies or recovering from illness or other symptoms. And let’s not forget you’ll have to go to PE without having an inhaler on your person.

    Bullying! Yes, we’re better than we used to be. But if a kid isn’t coming to school, again, cycle back to, “is this a healthy social environment for this particular child?” Does he have supportive peers? Teens won’t always volunteer, “No one likes me and I have no friends and every time I go into class people make snide remarks.” They may not say, “I was nice to the new boy and now everyone is taunting me about him being my boyfriend.” No one likes to admit being a social pariah. Just because they don’t say so doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

    And this goes for administrators, too. If a kid was out for a week, and the first thing you do is pull him out of class and subject him to a series of unpleasant meetings about his attendance, whoa, won’t that make him feel FABULOUS about having come to school that day? Way to make school even more unpleasant than it might otherwise be! Way to keep the student from flowing back into the regular routine. And who wants to face that if you’re still a little sneezy or under the weather?

    Navigio’s point about homework and assignments is something to watch as well. When we set up situations where it is easier or better to not come to school than to come to school without homework, we’re encouraging absenteeism. There is a fine balance of policy between “I expect you to be responsible and turn your work in on time” and accidentally creating absences. Keep in mind that often kids are in a half-sick state, that is, maybe they can get to class and make it through the day, and then come home, and are exhausted and sleep all afternoon, sick. Finding creative ways to accept these realities while still enforcing responsibility is worth doing – like three free assignment extensions per semester or the like that an individual student can use for special occasions – can build responsible behavior and create better incentives for excellence in attendance.

    And absolutely, the dynamics in both directions are self-reinforcing: that is, a student with perfect attendance is much more likely to get to school if at all possible; a student who starts missing lots of days is much more likely to miss more days.

    So, administrators, I implore you to ask yourself FIRST: what about MY school environment is not working for this student? Is there something I can do to make school a nicer place to be for this student such that she is excited to come each day, and feels glad she was here at the end of each day?

    1. navigio says:

      RIGHT ON EL!

      We have an analogous thing going on in our district as it relates to dropping enrollment (and associated increase in charter and private enrollment). The question that is asked (and answered) every few years is, ‘which schools should we close this time?’ Instead of, ‘why is it we keep needing to close schools?’

      Both your and this example are classic cases of treating the symptom instead of the disease.

      1. el says:

        I’m sure many people will read what I wrote and say, “well, we have to challenge the kids, it’s not all fun and games.” That would miss my point, part of which is that what is “fun and games” is a little different for each student.

        There has to be some bright spot in the school day. Maybe it’s being with good friends at lunch. Maybe it’s building a guitar in guitar-making class. Maybe it’s the english teacher that totally believes in you. Maybe it’s being the most proficient student in math. Maybe it’s great demos or labs in chemistry. Maybe it’s band or art or taking care of the pigs. Maybe it’s showing off the woodworking project you’ve been working so long on to the assistant principal who took an interest. Maybe it’s the feeling of pride when you read aloud to your kindergarten buddy. Maybe it’s planning an exciting field trip. Maybe it’s getting to spend a quiet hour in the air-conditioned library with a book. Maybe it’s football.

        But if you never have a point in the day where you feel safe and competent, you cannot be emotionally well, no matter what your age.

        1. navigio says:

          But if you never have a point in the day where you feel safe and competent, you cannot be emotionally well, no matter what your age.

          That goes on my list of quotes to hang our BoE’s meeting room wall.

    2. Paul says:

      el, on the question of homework deadlines, “The Homework Myth” supports your suggestion of lenience. I chose a different approach, for two reasons. First, tracking exceptions and processing off-cycle assignments is extremely time-consuming. Second, in classes where homework is assigned daily, is closely correlated with each day’s lesson, and is corrected in class the next day, students don’t benefit much from late work. My policy was not to accept late work (except where the Education Code compels it, i.e., within a “reasonable” period of time after an excused absence; since I posted all assignments online and provided self-service lesson materials as well, reasonable meant the day of return, except after a debilitating or long-term illness). Even though each homework assignment contributed less than one tenth of a percentage point to a student’s final grade, parents would spend theirs and my time arguing for homework points!

      Whatever exceptions we make and whatever consolation grades we assign, students who miss class miss out on learning. The causes of their absences must be discovered and addressed. Though school climate plays a role, no student really wants to come to school, so I reject most efforts to shift the blame from students and parents to the school. It is so refreshing to see, in the article, a definition of absenteeism that includes unexcused AND excused absences. Whatever the cause, the effect is the same.

      I heard that the American Indian Model charter schools would remove a student after five days of absence, whatever the cause. In a departmentalized setting, that makes perfect sense, and I wish that the Education Code allowed it. AIM had an attendance between 99 and 100%.

  6. navigio says:

    I am saddened to see the measure of success in Baltimore was the impact on attendance, and not on achievement (which appeared to be the primary reason for focusing on attendance as outlined in the main article).

    Our school reduced suspensions by 75% this year. Our API will probably go down, not up.

    I am also sad to see that in-school suspensions are not taking into account. It seems impossible that those kids are able to take full advantage (academically) of being present on the school campus.

    Although there is a strong correlation between attendance and achievement (I am very surprised people are only noticing this now–a simple truancy rate vs API function on a school-by-school basis is very enlightening. I’ve been doing this to try to scare, um trigger a focus on attendance in my district for years now.. to no avail), I think its dangerous to assume one causes the other, rather they are probably more the result of a common cause.

    Even then, low attendance, especially in secondary, can be the direct result of low performance. Miss a couple of assignments, forget a paper, the student is much more likely to stop showing up for class, or for school in general. Once that starts, its almost impossible to get out of that dynamic.

    It is also interesting to note that there is mention of the correlation between K and 1st grade attendance and CST results. Since CST is first taken in 2nd, this means we were able to track those students over multiple years. I’ll read that report later, but where did we get that data? Why are we not doing this kind of longitudinal analysis more?

    1. Manuel says:

      Navigio, I can’t resist asking: where is the mention of the correlation between K and 1st grade attendance and CST results? Which report is this?

      As for tracking students, CALPADS can allow that, but it has been operational since August 31, 2009. So that gives enough data to analyze the first cohort (K in 2009-10, 2nd in 2011-12) across the state. Is it possible that the report you refer to did it the hard way, that is, going through the cums?

      As for truancy, how much is that a problem in the primary schools? It seems to me that it is more of a secondary school problem, isn’t it? Given the advances in GIS, I propose that truancy numbers be displayed by school service area. That would, I am sure, be an eye-opener more than a longitudinal analysis. The resulting maps would be very useful in getting the public, non-profits, and the politicians to react positively to this very serious problem.

      1. navigio says:

        Its in the text above:

        Research indicates that lost learning time in the early years can set students up for academic failure. Only 17 percent of California children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade scored proficient or better on the California standardized tests in English language arts, compared to 64 percent who attended school regularly, according to a 2011 report prepared for Attendance Works.

        the word ‘report’ is a link to the study.

        1. Manuel says:

          Oh, that one.

          I took a quick look at it and it does not talk about better scores in 2nd grade. It talks about 3rd grade. Hence my confusion.

          BTW, it seems like they gathered their data the hard way: they went through the cums. You can tell because they only have 640 subjects in their sample and was confined to two counties, Santa Clara in 2004 and Santa Clara and San Mateo in 2005. Plus CALPADS was not around yet. So, yeah, they did the like the giants of all: by painstakingly going through the cums of 640 kids. Yikes.

      2. navigio says:

        I could not agree more on finding data that would allow community members and groups to target their volunteerism to the schools that need it most. Unfortunately, the fear of ‘shaming’ people seems to pose a pretty significant barrier to doing that now, to the point that it is actively discouraged.

        Truancy is an issue in elementary, though chronic truancy probably less so (though it still exists). I have seen correlations on the .25 to .5 range between attendance rates and API for elementary schools in my area. This even seems rather high given the number potential variables that can impact API changes from year to year.

  7. el says:

    Just so that we’re aware, this:

    ——–
    Among students who are chronically absent for two years any time between eighth and 12th grade, only half are likely to graduate,
    ——–

    Is nearly a tautology. That is, if you miss 18 days of school, you will fail all your classes in these grades regardless of your test scores or turned in assignments, and it is very difficult to make up the credits in a standard high school situation.

    If you want to know the effect on learning and achievement, it would be appropriate to also consider how many of those kids pass the GED et al.