Defining chronic absence

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), US schools are obliged to evaluate their performance using four academic achievement measures and one non-academic measure. Most states have adopted “chronic absenteeism” as their fifth indicator.

FutureEd, a “think tank” organisation at Georgetown University, has released “Who’s In: Chronic Absenteeism Under the Every Student Succeeds Act”, a report that analyses the 51 state ESSA plans regarding absenteeism and relates them to federal data on chronic absenteeism.

State ESSA plans show that 36 US states and Washington, DC have included chronic absences in their performance indicators. Yet there is no set standard to define chronic absenteeism. Of the 36 states using attendance as a performance indicator, 27 states define chronic absenteeism as missing ten percent of school days; five states inversely require 90% or more attendance, two states require more, and three states define it as missing a set number of days. Most states have not established standards for how many chronically absent pupils a school should have.

The review of federal absence rates shows that chronic absence is more prevalent in high school than in the earlier grades, and more prevalent among pupils from lower socio-economic status. Researchers found that the greatest variance in attendance is not between states or districts, but between schools within the same district. In fact, two-thirds of the variance was among schools in the same district, showing that measuring attendance is a meaningful measure of a school’s performance.

Suggestions to increase attendance include:

  • Establishing a nationwide standard definition for “chronic absence”, expressed as a percentage of the school year.
  • Including all absences, not just unexcused ones, in determining if a pupil has a chronic problem.
  • Establishing, by state, what percentage of chronic absences is too high for their schools and then set a realistic, achievable goal to measure improvement.
  • Giving teachers professional development credit to attend workshops on strategies to improve attendance.

Source: Who’s In: Chronic Absenteeism Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (September 2017), FutureEd, Georgetown University

Links between pre-school absenteeism and academic learning

A new study, published in Child Development, found that children in the US pre-school programme Head Start who missed 10% or more of the school year had fewer academic gains than their peers who attended pre-school more regularly.

Arya Ansari and Kelly M Purtell used data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009 cohort (n=2,842) to examine the effects of absenteeism among 3- and 4-year-olds on early academic learning. Their findings revealed that, on average, children missed eight days of the school year. However, 12% of children were chronically absent – defined as missing 10% of the school year or more – and missed an average of 22 days of school. Children who missed more days of school, especially those who were chronically absent, demonstrated fewer gains in maths and literacy during the pre-school year. For maths, this was equivalent to approximately two months of lost academic skill gains. In literacy the loss was three months.

The study also found that Black and Latino children were less likely to be absent than white children. Children from households with married parents were less likely to be absent than those from households without two parents. In addition, children were less likely to be absent when they were enrolled in classrooms that operate for more hours per week and in larger and bilingual classrooms. Children were more likely to be absent if their mother showed more depressive symptoms and was unemployed. The quality of interactions between teachers and children positively affected children’s development of literacy skills, and the benefits were roughly twice as large for children who were absent less often.

Source:  Absenteeism in Head Start and children’s academic learning (May 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12800

The positive side of taking the school bus

Out of all the early school years, excessive absenteeism is most prevalent during kindergarten (Year 1). While there may be many reasons for this, including difficulty moving from pre-school, how they get to school has been little studied.

In the first study to examine the effects of taking a school bus on reducing school absences, Michael Gottfried of the University of California Santa Barbara examined if taking a school bus to school reduced kindergarten pupil absence rate, and looked for any patterns among child and family characteristics.

Subjects were 11,000 US public school pupils who participated in The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Class of 2010–2011 (ECLSK:2011). As part of the study, data including school bus-taking was collected on a nationally representative set of kindergarten pupils in the 2010–2011 school year. Twenty-four percent of these kindergarten pupils took a school bus to school. They were paired with non-bus-taking pupils based on demographics, household conditions and kindergarten entry skills. Results showed that the kindergarten pupils who took the bus to school were less likely to be absent than their non-bus-taking peers, regardless of family characteristics, poverty level, or distance to school.

Authors discuss several implications of these findings, most notably that if taking the bus to school increases pupil attendance, this should be a consideration when budget cuts threaten to curtail school bus services.

Source: Linking getting to school with going to school (April 2017), Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis

Can a postcard reduce pupils’ absenteeism?

In an effort to improve parents’ and guardians’ awareness of absenteeism, and therefore reduce pupil absenteeism, the Philadelphia school district in the US together with the National Center for Evaluation and Regional Assistance conducted a randomised controlled trial based on the principles of “nudge” theory. Nudge theory is an approach that involves unobtrusive intervention to promote desired behaviours.

In this study, the “nudge” was a single postcard sent to the homes of pupils in grades 1–12 (Years 2–13 in the UK) who had been absent the previous year to test whether it could reduce absenteeism and what impact, if any, different messages had. Two types of message were tested: one simply encouraging parents to improve their child’s attendance; the other included specific information about their child’s attendance history as well as encouraging them to improve their child’s attendance. A control group received no postcards from the school.

Todd Rogers and colleagues found that receiving a postcard reduced absences by around 2.4 percent. There was no statistically significant difference in pupils’ absence according to which message their parents received. The effect of the postcard did not differ between pupils in grades 1– 8 (Years 2–9) and pupils in grades 9–12 (Years 10–13).

Source: A randomized experiment using absenteeism information to “nudge” attendance (February 2017), Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.

The effects of engaging teachers

Brookings’ Evidence Speaks series recently featured an article by Susanna Loeb and Jing Liu describing the effects of teacher engagement on students’ later life outcomes. The article explains that teachers who keep their students engaged are more likely to have students attend their classes, which leads to higher graduation rates. Research shows that absence rates double between middle and secondary school, due to multiple factors including difficulty getting to school, students’ preferring to work to bring in money, and the unpleasantness of being in certain classes.  Many students only miss partial days of school, skipping classes that are either too difficult or too easy.

In order to isolate the effects of individual teachers on student attendance, Loeb and Liu examined teachers’ abilities to engage with students as measured by class-period absence rates versus whole-day absence rates. They found that teachers who improved their students’ class-period attendance rates, and therefore were deemed engaging teachers, were a positive influence on these students’ graduation rates.

Source: Going to school is optional: Schools need to engage students to increase their lifetime opportunities (2016), The Brookings Institution

Using data to combat chronic absence

Chronic absenteeism (CA) has been broadly defined as missing so much school that a student is academically at risk. More specifically, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has defined it as missing 15 days or more for any reason. Hedy Chang at Attendance Works and Robert Balfanz at The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University recently examined the first-ever national data on chronic absenteeism released by the OCR, as well as data from the US Census Bureau and National Center for Education Statistics. Their goal was to determine if there were commonalities in patterns of chronic absenteeism, and if so, what possible solutions might be suggested based on these patterns.

The resulting research brief shows that CA is concentrated. Half of America’s chronically absent students can be found in just 4% of its districts and 12% of its schools. Where there are significant concentrations of poverty, there are significant amounts of absenteeism, regardless of whether the concentrations of poverty are in rural, urban, or suburban areas. The places with the largest numbers of chronically absent students usually have more than one generation of people living in poverty and a high African-American population.

The brief discusses how several districts successfully reduced chronic absenteeism by solving barriers to school attendance including unsafe walks to school, unreliable transportation, health issues like asthma, and making the schools welcoming and safe environments. A common pattern in the districts’ successes was that they all had access to data detailing their schools’ chronic absences. The authors make several recommendations to ensure that districts, schools, and families have the chronic-absence data they need. These recommendations include:

  • Examine what schools with low chronic absenteeism rates, despite facing challenges that can be a barrier to school attendance, are doing to overcome those barriers.
  • Use data to find indicators that a student is prone to CA. One such indicator is if a student missed more than 10% of the prior school year and two days in the first month of the current school year. Parents and school staff should be alerted.
  • When students are determined to be CA, it is important to find out why. Solving these problems is often most effective using teams of leaders who meet regularly and have the resources to solve the problems.

Source: Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence, Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center