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.

The Issues Impacting Youth and Their Families: The Educational Divide

Program staff and AmeriCorps members with Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) speak to hundreds of youth each year about their education. Some of these youth are still in school, but are beginning to struggle–failing a core class or having issues with attendance. Some of these youth have left school altogether and are considered a “dropout” with an uncertain future. When we speak with these youth, we find that there are many reasons for their current predicament. Very rarely do we find that it’s simply an act of rebellion. It’s often systemic and connected to larger social issues like poverty, system involvement, or their sexual orientation.

These conversations follow a strict rule of youth development: Meet the youth where they are at. We do this for a couple of reasons. One is because it’s important to give them the chance to speak with their own voice and describe things in their own words. Many of these youth feel disempowered and carried along by forces beyond their control. It’s necessary to make them an active agent in their process and we do this by listening. The other reason is it’s important to understand where they are currently, and where they can go in the future. We want to grasp their situation correctly and create a plan that is attainable and inspires them to reach their full potential.

Yet an aspect of meeting them where they are at–and listening without bias–is that we learn about new issues impacting youth and their families. This is especially poignant in a state like Colorado, which is quickly becoming one of the most expensive states in the country. We intend to further explore this in a future blog post.

Because of this and our experiences supporting youth in multiple schools and school districts across Colorado, we have decided to bring a focused effort to sharing our understanding, as well as our data, through this blog. We hope that people will find our observations and insights valuable. We also hope to connect with broader research and practices and show that helping youth with school is important, not only for them, but for the communities we live in as well.

About: The Educational Divide

The Educational Divide blog is created by Colorado Youth for a Change.  Colorado Youth for a change is working to help in-school youth stay in school and out-of-school youth get back into school. Because of our experiences supporting youth in multiple schools and school districts across Colorado, we have decided to bring a focused effort to sharing our understanding, as well as our data. We hope that people will find our observations and insights valuable. We also hope to connect with broader research and practices and show that helping youth with school is important, not only for them, but for the communities we live in as well.

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