The recently released scores on the Smarter Balanced assessments underscore enduring achievement gaps that decades of previous reforms have failed to close. But one contributor to the achievement gap has received little attention: The fact that large numbers of the youngest and often most disadvantaged students are frequently absent from school.
In California, kindergarten students are the most likely of any elementary school students to be “chronically absent,” defined as those missing at least 18 days, or 10 percent of the school year, according to “In School & On Track 2015,” a new report from Attorney General Kamala Harris that looked at absenteeism rates in the 2014-15 school year.
The fact that kindergarten is optional in California, despite recent efforts to make it compulsory, may contribute to a sense among parents that it is less important: 14.2 percent of kindergartners are chronically absent, compared with 8.8 percent of first graders.
The study raises concerns about rates of absenteeism along racial and economic lines: Almost 30 percent of Native American and African American kindergartners were classified as chronically absent. More than 75 percent of students with chronic attendance problems were from low-income backgrounds.
“Today’s attendance gaps become tomorrow’s achievement gaps,” said Harris. Her report cites an Attendance Works study that found four out of five students who were absent more than 10 percent of the school year in kindergarten and first grade were unable to read at grade level by third grade.
Harris’ office partnered with the nonprofit group The Ad Council, to find out more about the reasons for this absenteeism. They interviewed parents of chronically absent students and uncovered a perception that elementary school attendance in general isn’t as important as in upper grades. In addition to reasons like mild illness, parents let students skip school because a sibling was absent from school, and as a reward for good behavior.
The report calls absenteeism “a solvable problem,” however, and includes suggested strategies for districts, with links to case studies. A toolkit with research and tips about improving student attendance will be released by the Attorney General’s office this fall.