Chronic absenteeism seen as 'crisis'

On Board Online • October 17, 2016

By Mary Williams-Noi
Policy Consultant

The federal government has identified a new crisis in public education: chronic absenteeism.

In its first report on the subject, the U.S. Department of Education recently released an estimate that in the 2013-14 school year, 13 percent of the student population - 1 in 8 students - were chronically absent. The department called this a "hidden educational crisis."

Definitions of chronically absent vary. In New York, the State Education Department (SED) defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of school days - or 18 days or more per year in a 180-day school year. That's about two days per month.

Notably, that includes both excused and unexcused absences. The idea is that significant amounts of missed instructional time - for any reason - is cause for concern.

Chronic absenteeism is higher among vulnerable populations: students in poverty, some minorities, students with disabilities and English language learners (elementary levels). The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in December 2015, included a requirement that states begin reporting chronic absenteeism in Title I schools. This metric may be included as a non-academic indicator of school quality.

SED is preparing a plan for the implementation of ESSA, including tracking of chronic absenteeism, for submission to U.S. Department of Education in the spring of 2017.

Although reporting requirements may be restricted to Title I schools, NYSSBA Policy Services recommends all school districts assess and address chronic absenteeism.

Why attendance matters

In the past, schools focused on truancy - unexcused absences. One metric tracked in school districts is average daily attendance, which represents the percentage of students present on a typical school day. This figure can be deceptive, however, because it does not consider which specific students are absent.

As a school board member, it's important for you to be aware of patterns in your district. Make sure you look at chronic absenteeism rates annually - and not just average daily attendance. Ask administrators about the data and how the district is addressing these numbers.

While board members need to focus on patterns, school administrators need a system that enables them to look at attendance of individual students. It's important to intervene early, before students have missed so much school they're unable to catch up.

Tracking individual students' attendance gives schools the ability to identify specific students who repeatedly miss instruction. It goes without saying that when students stop being chronically absent, they improve academically and are more likely to stay in school.

Data consistently show that students who attend school regularly score higher on tests and have higher academic achievement than their peers who are frequently absent.

Ultimately, parents have the responsibility for ensuring their child is in school every day. However, some parents may not fully understand the negative consequences associated with chronic absences. Districts need multiple forms of outreach to families with poor attendance.

Well-written board policies and administrative implementation can help in many ways. These include:

  • Setting an expectation that administrators will routinely monitor attendance data and share it with stakeholders.
  • Promoting a culture of regular school attendance and supporting interventions when chronic absenteeism is a problem.
  • Addressing barriers to attendance (see story) by ensuring that families will be referred, as appropriate, to available resources in the school and community. If students are not attending school because they have medical, psychological or other needs that are not being addressed, boards may wish to consider offering services similar to the community schools model.

Board policies should not focus solely on punitive responses or legal action. Rather, they can identify attendance as a key issue for the district as a whole and promote a problem-solving culture. While some principals may be more tuned into attendance patterns than others, it's important that the district be consistent about implementing attendance policies throughout the district.

A comprehensive policy on student attendance is required by Commissioner's Regulations section 104.1. NYSSBA's sample policy 5100, Student Attendance, has been drafted to address chronic absenteeism, incorporating recommendations by a national research group called Attendance Works. Notably, we removed provisions that included in-school suspension as a consequence for absenteeism, as research suggests that is unlikely to result in a productive response.

We anticipate more changes to this policy in the future. NYSSBA Policy Update customers, please look for changes to this policy in a future update.

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