California education officials on Tuesday released school-level data that shows that last year more than 1 in 10 students were chronically absent, defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days for any reason.
The data, which the state released for the first time, reveals that 1 in 4 foster children was chronically absent from California schools last year, as were about 1 in 5 homeless, Native American and African-American students.
Chronic absenteeism among California’s students peaked in high school, at 15.4 percent. But the data showed kindergartners close behind, with 14 percent missing at least 10 percent of school days. The statewide average for all students was 10.8 percent.
By tracking and releasing the data, California joins nearly all states nationwide in dramatically shifting its approach to school absence away from punishing truancy, or unexcused absences, toward identifying the reasons for all absences and offering support. California in 2013, as part of the newly enacted Local Control Funding Formula, required school districts to track and address chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans. But the state only began collecting the data last year. It will eventually be added to the department’s new accountability dashboard so the public — including parents, teachers and school board members — can track progress.
Focusing on chronic absenteeism “is less judgmental because now you’re looking at absence for any reason,” said David Kopperud, chair of the state Student Attendance Review Board. “You have kids with health problems and mental health problems, you have young children who are missing school for no fault at their own.”
Schools with high poverty levels tend to have higher rates of chronic absenteeism, he added, and “one of the best ways we can address poverty is by figuring out what can we do to help these students get to school despite lack of transportation, health issues, trauma and anxiety.”
Research has shown that missing at least 10 percent of the school year, particularly in early grades, reduces the likelihood that students will read proficiently by 3rd grade, predicts poor academic performance in middle school and increases the likelihood that students will drop out in high school. Students living in poverty, students of color and students with disabilities have disproportionately higher rates of chronic absenteeism.
The data on chronic absenteeism for the 2016-17 school year is publicly available on the state Department of Education website and searchable by school. Data searchable by school and grade level is available through EdSource’s database.
Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that aims to advance student success by reducing chronic absences, called the release of the data “groundbreaking,” because it is publicly available and searchable. Only a handful of other states maintain it that way, she said.
“California is 10 percent of the country and this is huge,” said Chang, whose organization conducts research on chronic absenteeism and trains school districts to use the measure to help students.
Having consistent statewide data is “key to accountability,” Chang said, because it reveals patterns. For example, the data released Tuesday shows particularly high rates of chronic absenteeism for some rural counties, with Inyo, Nevada and Trinity counties posting the state’s highest rates. That, Chang said, is likely due to challenges with transportation and a relative dearth of mental health and other support services.
“That allows you to say, ‘Let’s think about rural solutions’,” she said, “or, ‘Look at Native American kids and African-American kids. Wow, that’s a statewide problem…. For planning purposes, you need to know concentration, scale, severity.”
California has been pushing schools to focus on the measure for a number of years. Legislation that took effect last January expanded the duties of school attendance workers and required them to analyze chronic absenteeism data and to refer students to needed supports.
And California has also joined 35 other states and the District of Columbia in including chronic absenteeism in its plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal blueprint for education that goes into effect next fall. The metric will serve as an added academic indicator for grades K–8, “given its strong correlation with future academic attainment,” according to the plan submitted for federal review.
Some California schools and districts have been using the measure for years to flag students early on and figure out what’s keeping them from attending school. Clifford Hong took the helm of Oakland’s Roosevelt Middle School in 2009 and a year later heard Chang, of Attendance Works, deliver a presentation to the district. His school’s chronic absenteeism rate was “really high,” he said, so he asked Chang for help.
“We just made a commitment to look at these numbers and say let’s get it down,” Hong said in an interview Tuesday, noting his school cut the rate by more than half. “It’s part of our culture now.”
The school’s team of teachers, administrators, counselors, health and mental health staff meet every week to review the numbers of every student. And for those whose numbers are climbing?
“We assign specific people to call the family, call the student, ‘What’s going on? Do you need a bus pass to come to school? Do you just need to talk to someone?” Hong said.
Those calls bear fruit. When a member of the team called one student’s home not long ago, she learned from his mom that “he was locking himself up in his room, and he wouldn’t come out, and mom didn’t know what to do. We were able to provide some mental health supports for him. If we weren’t checking, who knows what would have happened?”
Hong often repeats a phrase he once saw posted on a superintendent’s wall: “What Gets Measured Is What Gets Done.” With this data joining the state’s accountability measures, he said, “people are going to pay a lot more attention to those figures and we should see chronic absence reduce. That’s important.”