Chronic Absenteeism a Major Problem in U.S. Schools

More than 15 percent of students are missing almost a month of school. Districts don't know how to address the issue.
by | December 2018
Empty chair in dark classroom.
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Desks in classrooms all across the country are routinely empty. It’s not due to a lack of funding or declining enrollment, but to the fact that students simply aren’t showing up.

The most recent federal data suggest more than 1 in 7 students are chronically absent from our public schools. It’s a widespread problem: At least a dozen schools in nearly every state report more than 20 percent of students are chronically absent.

Chronic absenteeism is a relatively new measure the federal government and states have started to track. Unlike truancy, it denotes missing school for any reason, excused or unexcused. But there is no universally agreed-upon threshold. The national think tank Attendance Works, which defines chronic absenteeism as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a given year, views it as an early indicator of more serious trouble. “Chronic absence is an alert,” says Hedy Chang, the group’s executive director, “that a kid is at risk, or a school is struggling and needs more resources.”

There are big disparities among different regions of the country. Federal data for the 2015-2016 school year indicate that more than one-fifth of students were chronically absent in seven states: Alaska, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington. Meanwhile, only about a tenth of students in Vermont and North Dakota were chronically absent. 

The wide variation is largely a reflection of demographics. Black, Hispanic and Native American students are significantly more likely to miss school. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has reported that students with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to be chronically absent than others. Counterintuitively, students not proficient in English are actually less likely to be chronically absent than more proficient English speakers. A report published in September by Attendance Works and the Johns Hopkins University School of Education found that an alarming 30 percent or more of students were chronically absent from nearly 11,800 schools. It identified high poverty as a driving factor.

Demographics don’t always predict attendance, though. According to the report, chronic absenteeism exceeding 20 percent is more common in city schools than in suburban and rural areas. But in Oregon, an analysis showed especially high rates in rural areas. In Alabama and Mississippi, white students are more likely to miss school than black students.

Missing school sets students back academically. Average reading and math scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress show a drop-off for students missing significant amounts of school in virtually all demographic groups. Research suggests negative consequences are more severe for poorer students. A 2010 study in Sociology of Education found that socioeconomically disadvantaged kindergarten and first-grade children with good attendance improve their literacy more than those who miss school more often.

A 2015 federal law requires the disclosure of chronic absence in end-of-year district report cards, and nearly three-quarters of states have adopted it as an accountability metric. Definitions differ across states, though, and some leave it up to their districts to define. A few states, for instance, don’t count a suspension as a missed day of school. There’s an effort to define chronic absence more consistently. It’s the differences in reporting that likely explain many of the discrepancies in state numbers, as some districts may undercount absent students if state and federal definitions don’t match.

Given the varying reasons why students are absent, there’s no universal approach to solving the problem. Districts have pursued a range of targeted interventions, from hiring caseworkers to, in rare instances, taking parents to court. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District established a phone bank to check in with families of chronically absent students. Oregon, a state which consistently records one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, recently hired eight regional coordinators to address the issue.

 

State Student Absenteeism Data

Nationally, more than 15 percent of students during the 2015-16 school year were chronically absent, which the federal government defines as missing 15 or more days. Student demographics, differences in reporting methods and numerous other factors influence states’ totals.