Report: Low-income, black, disabled students miss school more often

August 31, 2015

California’s low-income, black and disabled students are more likely to miss school frequently, which can be linked to future achievement gaps and dropout rates, according to a report released Monday.

The national report by Attendance Works found that chronic absenteeism is often the result of a student’s health problems, such as asthma, and absenteeism is often as prevalent among young children as it is among teenagers. At least 10 percent of kindergartners and 1st graders miss nearly a month of class in a school year, according to the report.

Researchers generally define chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of the school year, but states often have their own definitions.

“Although we think about missing too much school as a problem in middle school and high school, it’s really a problem that affects the youngest children,” said Hedy Chang, a report author and director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that focuses on increasing school attendance, in a conference call with reporters.

The report came out the same week that the State Board of Education is about to consider making attendance rates a key part of its accountability system.

On Wednesday, the board will decide how to incorporate average daily attendance, or ADA, as a state measure for the federal No Child Left Behind law. Because new scores are unavailable as California transitions to a new testing system, attendance for elementary and middle schools instead will be one way to show if schools are meeting goals under the federal law, called Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.

But the average daily attendance number falls short of demonstrating school success, Chang said. The ADA number only shows the average number of students who attend school in a given time. That can mask how many students are chronically absent. Even schools with a 95 percent attendance rate could have 20 percent of students who are chronically absent, Chang said.

“It tells you how many show up every day. It does not tell you that they are missing so much school that they are academically at risk,” Chang said.

Currently, California is one of six states that fails to collect attendance data in its system that tracks student information over time, according to the report. Chang said fewer than 10 states use chronic absenteeism as part of their accountability plans.

State board officials acknowledge that chronic absenteeism data would be a better measure and education officials are developing a plan to collect information in the future, according to a state board document. (See agenda item 7.) The numbers should be available in 2016-17.

For now, state board officials are recommending that elementary and middle schools set a target of 93 percent average daily attendance.

The California numbers largely reflect the attendance gap seen nationally, where black and low-income students had among the highest percentages of absenteeism, according to the report.

The absentee numbers came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, tests often known as the Nation’s Report Card, that students nationwide take every two years. Students were asked if they missed three or more days of school in the month before taking the test. Researchers averaged the 2011 and 2013 responses.

Nationwide, 22 percent of black 4th graders and 23 percent of black 8th graders responded that they had missed at least three days, compared to 19 percent of white students in those grades.

Among low-income children, 23 percent of 4th graders and 24 percent of 8th graders were absent at least three days during the prior month, according to the report.

Hispanic students also were absent frequently: 21 percent in 4th grade and 22 percent in 8th grade had missed at least three days in the prior month.

California’s Hispanic 4th graders, too, missed school more often than their white peers. But in 8th grade, Hispanics actually had a higher attendance rate than whites. See accompanying chart.

Nationally, and in California, students with disabilities had the highest absentee rates among student groups, according to the report. In 4th grade, 25 percent of students with disabilities had high numbers of absences. In 8th grade, it was 28 percent.

Nationally, their absences could be attributed to health concerns, but also possibly because of inappropriate placements, bullying or disliking school, according to the report. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, the report states.

The report highlights the problem of chronic absenteeism for kindergarten and 1st grade nationwide, but it did not break down information for each state.

Although California has yet to collect statewide chronic absenteeism numbers, districts themselves are supposed to track that information as part of their Local Control and Accountability Plans.

Some districts already are working on the issue. One of those districts is Oakland Unified, which was highlighted in the report.

Six years ago, Oakland officials realized that they were tracking truancy – meaning unexcused absence numbers – but they were overlooking a large number of students who were missing school with excused absences, said Theresa Clincy, the district’s attendance and discipline coordinator.

After tracking the absences, they found a large number of young children who were missing school. Since then, principals have received weekly reports so they can help students who are struggling to get to school because of health, transportation or other problems. The percentage of students who are chronically absent has dropped from 16 percent in 2009-10 to 12 percent last school year. The goal is 5 percent.

“We do take it seriously,” Clincy said. “We really want to support our schools and, in turn, support our families to understand how important attendance is and how it does determine long-term success.”

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