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Nearly 8 million students nationwide were chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year, with California accounting for more than 760,000 of those children, according to a report released last week representing the most comprehensive analysis to date of chronic absenteeism in the nation’s schools.

These numbers equate to approximately 15 percent of all students nationally and 12 percent in California, says the report, which is the result of a collaboration among San Francisco-based Attendance Works, the Brookings Institution and Johns Hopkins University.

A deeper look at the data shows that just over half of all chronically absent students are concentrated in a relatively small subset of schools with “high” or “extreme” levels of chronic absenteeism, according to the report, which is dubbed “Data Matters — Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success.”

The researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which defines a student as chronically absent during a given school year if he or she misses 15 school days. The report considers a school to have a high level of chronic absenteeism if 20 percent of its students are chronically absent; and to have an extreme level if the number reaches 30 percent.

Chronic absenteeism can have adverse consequences for a child as early as kindergarten. Students with high rates of absenteeism are less likely to be able to read by the end of the 3rd grade, are more likely to drop out in high school and show less persistence in college, the report notes.

Poverty plays a big role — levels of chronic absenteeism were much higher in schools with 75 percent or more of students living in poverty than those with 25 percent or less, the report said. But, the researchers noted, there were schools in some of the nation’s highest poverty areas that had low levels of chronic absenteeism.

“We need to be unpacking what kind of barriers are contributing to chronic absence,” said Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. “We know that among the causes can be negative school experiences and lack of engagement.”

Yet, just having the data is a huge improvement over how absenteeism was tracked as recently as a decade ago when schools were “still collecting attendance data with a paper and pencil,” Chang said. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, requires all states to include counts of chronically absent students in their school report cards.

California is among 36 states and the District of Columbia that have decided to include chronic absenteeism among their main measures of school performance. It is scheduled to debut this year as one of six statewide indicators on the California School Dashboard, the state’s school accountability system.

However, the newness of the data means that it is not yet as reliable as data for test scores and graduation rates, which have been collected for decades. This is primarily because districts are not used to tracking chronically absent students and the different ways in which schools take attendance.

For example, continuation schools, which are a type of alternative school, report their attendance in hours, rather than days like traditional schools do, which could lead to discrepancies in their rates of absenteeism. State officials have acknowledged this issue but have not said whether it would cause rates to be artificially inflated or lowered.

Earlier this year, the California Department of Education began adding notes to chronic absenteeism data posted on its DataQuest website warning that the statistics might be unreliable. Since then, several districts, including San Francisco Unified, have acknowledged that their data is not accurate. The issue is on this month’s agenda of the State Board of Education, which meets Thursday and Friday of this week.

The Data Matters report also mentions suspect data, saying that an increase of 800,000 chronically absent students from 2013-14 to 2015-16 can be partially explained by improved reporting accuracy.

Another aspect of California’s reporting protocol that Chang said likely masks the true number of chronically absent students is the state’s practice of counting a student present if he or she shows up for just one period during the school day.

“We are the only state I know of that has a state law saying a child can be counted as present if they showed up for one period,” Chang said.

But despite all the issues that could be making the numbers artificially low, Chang said she is confident that the data is accurately revealing overall trends in California’s rates of chronic absenteeism and considers the state a leader in addressing the issue.

“California has a rich and robust history of attending to truancy compared to other states,” Chang said. “There is a systemic approach for working with families with truant children…I’ve gone to some states that can’t even agree on a definition for truancy.”

An interactive map, created by the researchers working with the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, shows that the problem is far more acute in rural California than it is in the state’s urban areas. Consider that tiny Bishop Unified School District in Inyo County had a chronic absenteeism rate of 53.7 percent, compared to 12.7 percent for Los Angeles Unified.

Improving these numbers in rural areas will require more resources and a change in mindset, Chang said.

“Traditionally attendance is treated as a matter of compliance — you need to show up to school to comply with the law,” she said. “But looking at it this way tends to trigger a response way too late. We need to look at attendance as an opportunity to learn.”

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  1. Michele 2 months ago2 months ago

    John H, you can check your district's dashboard for the Chronic Absenteeism rates. I can tell you for a fact, ALL districts in CA lose money due to absenteeism. Schools are only funded when children show up to school. There is no funding if a child is absent. Absenteeism is a losing situation for all involved - the child loses out on education, and this is a loss that is difficult … Read More

    John H, you can check your district’s dashboard for the Chronic Absenteeism rates. I can tell you for a fact, ALL districts in CA lose money due to absenteeism. Schools are only funded when children show up to school. There is no funding if a child is absent. Absenteeism is a losing situation for all involved – the child loses out on education, and this is a loss that is difficult to recoup. The school loses out on funding, which means less money for classroom supplies, less money for teacher compensation, less money for improved programs.

  2. John H. Lorona 2 months ago2 months ago

    I’ m interested in Selma USD a district in the California Central Valley, which is caught in the grip of poverty and despair. Please, I need data on this district to determine if there is a chronic absentee problem. And whether this district loses revenue due to absenteeism. Thank You.

  3. el 2 months ago2 months ago

    I think this is an important issue that deserves a lot of attention. One thing it may not be, is simple. IE: I see a lot of people jumping from correlation to causation, and assuming if only the kids were in school, that the bad outcomes we fear would not happen. That we solve this by yelling at parents and kids until they comply. I am not forgetting an earlier EdSource article that quoted a school … Read More

    I think this is an important issue that deserves a lot of attention.

    One thing it may not be, is simple. IE: I see a lot of people jumping from correlation to causation, and assuming if only the kids were in school, that the bad outcomes we fear would not happen. That we solve this by yelling at parents and kids until they comply. I am not forgetting an earlier EdSource article that quoted a school official who was calling up a mom whose daughter had the flu, who had been diagnosed by a doctor, and they were hassling the mom to get her back into class. Getting contagious kids back into school might not be the best plan.

    I’d love to see some rigorous, like PhD thesis level, analysis about the reasons kids are absent and what require individual interventions, what require systemic interventions, and what might want to be a mix of both, IE, systemic responses that are then individualized.

    If a child is missing a lot of school because he is chronically ill – which could include a lot of hard to diagnose or manage situations like mental health issues, chronic migraines, asthma, IBS, etc – it’s not clear to me that the child will do more learning or get better grades shoved back into the classroom and sitting at a desk in misery. Same if the child is in misery due to family or community trauma. Sometimes kids need time and flexibility and our system is unyielding in its need for kids to all move along at the same pace. This is true both for kids who have the resources to catch up on missed work academically and also for kids who don’t.

    At the same time, we want schools to be welcoming and comfortable for kids, and a high chronic absentee rate suggests that a school may not be that – a bullying problem, mold or poor air quality, lack of HVAC, other systemic issues that could indicate problems for the whole school.

    We should not forget that causation may also be happening the other way – that is that the act of being absent causes triggers in the system to drop kids’ grades and opportunity beyond the lack of learning time. A policy that for example mandates that a child fail after missing 15 days regardless of grades or academic performance, naturally correlates to students who are chronically absent failing their classes and not graduating on time or possibly at all.

    The higher rural rate of absenteeism does not surprise me. When you live far from everywhere, there are some logistic issues that come into play – like that your pediatrician or orthodontist may be more than an hour away and they can’t schedule all their appointments for 4pm, or that events and needs that would be a day trip for someone living in LA require two full days of travel. Rural kids have a lot of time on the road for sports too, sometimes 2 hours of travel each way plus game time. Parents may be working far from home with long commutes and kids dependent on parents to drive them to school, and it can be hard even for the most resourceful, conscientious and academically inclined parent to avoid absences. Add in the high rates of poverty in most rural areas and it’s just that much more challenging.

    I always think it’s interesting that kids who miss a lot of class for sports aren’t considered chronically absent even though if it’s just the class time that’s the key thing, they should all be at risk. So, that could be an interesting control group.

    I see the solutions as going into at least three categories:
    1. Considering absences to be a marker for a student in crisis, and working to address those individual needs.
    2. Making school a place kids want to be whenever they can, which includes both school culture and quality facilities.
    3. Considering flexibility and recovery for kids who have absences and making sure they have the support to return to class and the time and resources they need to catch up, and that grading rubrics allow them to do so. IME some of the blended learning options with online components can help with this, if kids have access to internet and devices at home.

    One of these days we’re going to be hit by a very serious flu or similar, and our system has no way to cope with large numbers of kids who really do need to be out of class.