"empty desk, symbolizing an absent student"

Chronic absence (i.e., missing 10 percent or more of school in a given year) contributes to declines in students’ academic performance. Because most school districts don’t collect or report data on chronic absenteeism, it’s difficult to gauge the full scope of the problem. According to a recent report The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools, only six U.S. states (Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon, and Rhode Island) currently measure rates of chronic absenteeism.

“Because it is not measured, chronic absenteeism is not acted upon,” explain Robert Belfanz and Vaughn Byrnes, the authors of the report. “Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered.”

Most schools track average daily attendance. The authors point out that the problem with gauging attendance using this single data point is that it is possible to obtain a reasonable average—even 90 percent—and still have a significant portion of students who are chronically absent. If the absences come repeatedly from a particular group of students, the rate of chronic absenteeism could be as high as 40 percent.

Especially troublesome is the fact that chronic absenteeism is most prevalent among children from low-income neighborhoods—the very students who benefit most from attending school every day.

One study, using data from New York City, indicates that high rates of student absenteeism can lower achievement for all students—not just those who were absent. In a press release from John Hopkins University, Belfanz further explains how absenteeism can have repercussions for the whole class:

Empty desks mean that teachers will either re-teach old material when chronically absent children return to school, which will slow the pace of every child in the room, or they will move ahead to new material anyway, often leading to behavioral problems as the children who have missed many days of school fall further behind their peers and disrupt the rest of the class.

Students who are chronically absent can easily become completely disengaged from school. Recent research demonstrates that chronic absenteeism is one of the strongest predictors of dropping out of high school—a stronger predictor than suspensions, test scores, and being overage for grade level.

The authors argue that reducing chronic absenteeism may be one of the most important strategies for closing the achievement gap. Ensuring that all students attend school regularly—regardless of advances in the quality of the education they receive—can significantly improve academic achievement, graduation rates, and college admission rates. 

“The good news of this report is that being in school leads to succeeding in school. Achievement, especially in math, is very sensitive to attendance, and absence of even two weeks during one school year matters,” state the authors.

The report highlights strategies and programs that communities have used to reduce chronic absenteeism—from campaigns and public service announcements, to mentoring programs, to innovative student incentives. The report also includes policy recommendations for the federal, state, and local levels.

“[These examples] show that chronic absence can be significantly reduced when schools and communities use data to inform action, build a culture of regular attendance, and help families and students overcome barriers to getting to school,” the authors conclude.

Do you believe that chronic absenteeism might be a hidden problem in your community? What strategies have you seen that work? Please add your comments below.

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