Chronic Absenteeism Part II: Time and Commitment

untitled-1After an overwhelming response to our last post about chronic absenteeism, we thought we would dive a little deeper into the subject. Identifying students who are experiencing chronic absenteeism—which is most often described as missing 10 percent or more of school—is relatively straightforward. As many school administrators know, it’s also one of the most powerful early warning indicators out there. Yet it does require staff time, knowledge of a school’s database system, some Excel skills, and an ongoing commitment.

Chronic absenteeism is different than attendance in that it focuses on individual students and looks at all absences, whether they are excused or not. In addition, most attendance systems, like average daily attendance, look at attendance in the aggregate, and as a result, some students can be missed.

For example, Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Bryrnes make this case in one of the most widely quoted reports on the subject: The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools. In this report, a powerful case is made against using average daily attendance and for looking at individual school records instead. For example, as the report clarifies, “it is possible for a school to have 90 percent average daily attendance and still have as many as 40 percent of its students chronically absent because on different days different students are in school.”

At present, many organizations, as well as the federal government, are encouraging states in partnership with schools and school districts, to adopt chronic absenteeism as one of their accountability measures in the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind, and was signed into law on December 10th, 2015. ESSA provides more flexibility to schools by requiring each state to use five indicators of success with the fifth indicator being left to the discretion of the state. Each state is required to create a plan and provide it to the federal government next year. Colorado is currently creating their plan and their efforts are available on the state Department of Education’s website.

We’ve found that monitoring chronic absenteeism on a weekly basis provides a wealth of insight into patterns and trends among students. Our current approach is to:

  1. Pull a weekly attendance report from Infinite Campus or PowerSchool (Colorado school databases) each Monday
  2. Drop the data into a spreadsheet
  3. Rank each student into one of three attendance tiers:
    1. Red (60 percent or less)
    2. Yellow (61 percent to 79 percent)
    3. Green (80 percent or more)
  4. Examine changes between weeks and student’s rate for the entire school year

Because chronic absenteeism looks at all absences, both excused and unexcused, we have to make sure we’re using the right attendance report, and that our formulas match the number of possible school days for the week.  This information is then moved into a relatively simple and straightforward report that our staff and AmeriCorps members use to prioritize their time and focus for the week.

So far, we’ve found success with the model. Having a direct view of who is attending and who is not attending, provides clarity. This not only helps with prioritizing, but it also helps staff and AmeriCorps members quickly identify who is at risk, who is slipping and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. For us, it’s another data-driven tool for improving education among vulnerable students.


Excused or Not, What Chronic Absenteeism Means for a Student’s Future

empty-chair-resize1Students cannot learn if they are absent from school. A student who is not attending school is considered “truant” and is subject to the laws and school regulations that address this behavior. Both attendance and truancy rates are reported by the Colorado Department of Education and can be found on the SchoolView data center.  Yet there are limitations to the definition of truancy, which is why chronic absenteeism is emerging as another concern.

The main distinction is that chronic absenteeism places an emphasis on missing any days of school regardless if the days are excused or not. Truancy does not factor in excused days. “Excused” is sometimes different based on local school district practice and administrators. What is more, high school age students can—legally—stop attending school on their seventeenth birthday in Colorado. There are, clearly, implications to this. Chronic absenteeism considers all students until they graduate.

So what is chronic absenteeism? In short, it is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year or at least 15 days. Once again, it makes no difference whether days were excused or not. As can be expected, chronic absenteeism “is a primary cause of low-academic achievement and a powerful predictor of those students who may eventually drop out of school.” (Every Student, Every Day).

The Department of Education, utilizing information from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), goes on to say that over 6 million students in 2013-2014 missed 15 days or more, which is basically one out of every eight students or 13 percent. Yet when you look at chronic absenteeism by grade those numbers change with more and more students chronically absent at the high-school level.  This has enormous implications for our organization, and many others, which focus on engaging high school students with the purpose of graduating. Here’s the breakdown by grade:

  • 1 in 10 (10 percent) Elementary School
  • 1 in 8 (12 percent) Middle School
  • 1 in 5 (20 percent) High School

Chronic absenteeism also impacts minority students more than white students. 22.2 percent of American Indian and Pacific Islander students are impacted the most, followed by 16.4 percent of Black students, 13.3 percent of Latino/Latina students, and 12.2 percent of white students. The CRDC also shows that chronic absenteeism “spikes” for all students in high school regardless of race or ethnicity.

We are particularly interested in chronic absenteeism and how to apply this current research to our work. We are interested in it as both a prevention lens to help us keep youth in school, as well as a means of understanding our students who have left school and are now returning. Chronic absenteeism, because it looks at excused and non-excused absences, allows for a more direct identification of high-risk students. It also has enormous implications for system-involved youth who are sometimes chronically absent for reasons beyond their control.

A study from the University of Utah found that “for each year that a student is chronically absent, his or her odds of dropping out approximately double.”  So whether the student is excused or not, missing school has enormous consequences for their future.