Chronic Absenteeism Is a Huge School Problem. Can Data Help?

The pandemic has significantly increased the number of students who don’t attend class. Solutions aren’t easy, but school districts can recover the chronically absent by digging deeper into data.

Classroom of a daycare center without children and teacher.
(Lopolo/Shutterstock)
The education losses resulting from pandemic school closures and an unanticipated shift to remote learning have slowed academic achievement. But no matter what resources or strategies are devised to make up for learning setbacks and prevent a generational catastrophe, students won’t benefit unless they show up.

Chronic absence, already a significant problem before the pandemic, reached new levels in the last year. One in four American students were chronically missing in 2020, up from the previous rate of one in six. In some school districts, the rate reached as high as 40 percent.

The student populations buffeted by the health, economic and social consequences of COVID-19 were already more likely to miss days before schools were forced to close their doors. An analysis of 2017-2018 attendance data from 91,000 schools found a chronic absenteeism rate of 17 percent for Hispanic students, 23 percent for Black students, 23 percent for those with disabilities and 29 percent for Native American students.

Chronic absence, defined as missing 10 percent or more of the academic year, has emerged as the most significant barrier to student success and educational equity. It might seem obvious that students who miss days at school learn less, but the problem was not studied in depth, or given a name, until early in this century.

Researchers and educators are now pushing for better use of data collection and analysis to identify students who miss school, and to target resources to recover them.
Three women sitting in chairs in a conference room as part of a panel while the fourth, Hedy Chang, stands and speaks on the far right.
Hedy Chang (right), the founder of Attendance Works, was among the first to recognize chronic absenteeism as a major barrer to student achievement.
Photo: Attendance Works

Noticing the Students Who Aren’t There


Recognition that simply being present could be a primary determinant of academic achievement has been driven by years of work by Hedy Chang, founder of Attendance Works, and Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Chang’s involvement in the issue began in 2006. “Ralph Smith at the Annie Casey Foundation asked me to take a look at whether kids missing too much school in kindergarten and first grade was a reason they weren’t reading at the end of third grade,” she says.
It was harder to answer this question than she expected. At the time, schools took attendance with paper and pencil and few had longitudinal attendance databases. Moreover, they only tracked unexcused absences (truancy). Chang was interested in every day missed, whether excused or not, and it seemed unlikely that 5-year-olds could decide to stay home without their parents knowing.

When she found a district in Cleveland that maintained an attendance database, she discovered that 40 percent of their kindergarteners were chronically absent. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, have we given up on a generation?’”

It became clear that metrics such as “average daily attendance” did not capture chronic absence. “You can have average daily attendance in the low 90s and still have 20 percent of your kids missing a month of school, because different kids on different days make up that 90 percent,” says Balfanz. “It’s not that seven percent of kids never show up.”

As Chang and Balfanz continued to find and analyze attendance data, and as they and others began to correlate days missed with declines in student performance and graduation rates, it became clear that tracking chronic absence was essential. States had longitudinal data systems in place by 2010, but calculating chronic absence was still not common.

A longitudinal study by the Utah Education Policy Center followed all public school students in the state who entered 8th grade in 2006 until their graduation, finding that successive years of chronic absence resulted in dramatic increases in graduation failure.
The 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a turning point. Chronic absenteeism was included in the data that states were required to report to the federal government, and they also had the option of using it as an accountability metric, and dozens of states chose to do so. In the same year, the U.S. Department of Education launched a chronic absenteeism campaign.

“Localities were more incentivized to create meaningful and actionable data reports to help people know which kids, how many kids, which populations and which schools were facing high levels of chronic absence,” says Chang.

Average National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics scale scores of 8th-grade students in 2017, by race/ethnicity and number of days absent from school in the last month.
NAEP-Math-Scores.png
Note: A score of 262 reflects “basic” math skill at this grade level; a score of 299 reflects proficiency. No student who missed 5-10 days or more achieved proficiency, and many had not mastered basic math skills.
(U.S. Department of Education)
Focus gradually shifted from pushing for recognition of the problem to identifying the best ways to do something about it, but too many students were still missing too many days of school when COVID-19 arrived.

In earlier work, Balfanz compared chronic absenteeism in schools to bacteria in a hospital, which can “wreak havoc long before it is discovered.” Bacteria and viruses tend to grow exponentially, he says, and pandemic disruption of school operations caused chronic absence to do the same. “It went to places where it hadn’t been before,” he says.


Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Secretary of Education Miguel Cordona sitting before a microphone.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (left) and Secretary of Education Miguel Cordona. While serving as the state's education commissioner, Cordona implemented programs to track chronic absence.
(Christopher Keating/Hartford Courant/TNS/TNS)

Education officials in Connecticut recognized this risk and made unique use of data sets to address it. The state worked to reduce chronic absence long before COVID-19, says Charlene M. Russell-Tucker, acting commissioner of education for the Connecticut State Department of Education (CDSE). “We’ve had a decade of addressing the fact that attendance is foundational to student success, looking at data to drive intervention strategies.”

Conn. Public Act 15-225 establishes an official definition of chronic absence and mandates the establishment of district and school-level attendance teams where chronic absence rates are found to be high. It called for the creation of chronic absenteeism prevention and intervention guide, which was completed in 2017.

A five-year plan adopted by the state board of education in 2016 includes “decreased rates of chronic absenteeism” among its expected outcomes. The state used annual attendance data to track progress toward this goal, says John Frassinelli, chief of the CDSE’s Bureau of Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education. When public health concerns led to school closures and remote instruction, tracking student engagement became a short-term necessity.

In September 2020, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was serving as Connecticut’s education commissioner. With support from Gov. Ned Lamont, he announced that the state would begin to collect and share attendance data on a monthly basis, as well as weekly reports on the Learning Models in place at school districts. (This information is available on a data portal maintained by CDSE.)

This shift to more frequent data collection had a big impact, says Kari Sullivan, a student support consultant to CDSE on attendance and engagement. “It gave us a current snapshot of the students who were missing too much school,” she says.

A report comparing chronic absence rates in the 2019-2020 school year (through mid-March) to rates in December 2020 found an increase of 21.4 percent for all students, and rates well above 30 percent for students with disabilities, English learners and students eligible for free meals.

Sullivan coordinates outreach to families of these high-need students, including virtual home visits and phone calls from teachers. “There is due diligence to find these students,” she says.

This groundwork is well flanked. CDSE has worked with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, Attendance Works and the nonprofit State Education Resource Center to develop virtual meetings, advisory teams, webinars for students and families and professional development among other resources.

It’s critical to look carefully at data, says Frassinelli. “We’re finding incredible tidbits of information,” he says. In some districts that require uniforms, he found that students who don’t have a place to wash them are embarrassed to come to school. In districts that require students who live within a half mile of school to walk, some stay home when it rains.

“That’s the level of scrutiny you need, so you can address specific groups of students their specific barriers to coming to school,” says Frassinelli.
Chronic absence in Connecticut
A publicly-accessible portal created by CDSE includes attendance numbers, an interactive attendance rate map, year-to year chronic absence rates and updates on the learning models being used by districts.
(CDSE)
In April, Gov. Lamont announced that he would use stimulus funds to support a Learner Engagement and Attendance Program (LEAP) to address chronic absenteeism and disengagement in 15 districts. LEAP includes wraparound services that address life situations that can keep students from attending, from housing assistance and Internet connectivity to child care and transportation. Allocation of the funds is data-driven, aimed at districts with the highest rates of non-attendance.

“The pandemic has continued to create challenges around student attendance and engagement, however, something we have learned clearly throughout the year is that information is power,” says Gov. Lamont. “The more data Connecticut has when it comes to attendance and participation, the better equipped we will be to support our schools, students and families.”

“We have used data to deploy on the ground support, to go out and knock on doors if necessary, to find out what may be necessary not just for the student, but maybe for a family,” says Commissioner Russell-Tucker. “Federal resources are coming into states, and we really need to be thinking about where our students are and what they need.”

The digital revolution was in its third decade when Hedy Chang encountered teachers taking attendance with pencils. Some are working to help schools access more of the capabilities of information technology to keep track of students who miss school, and to act on this data more quickly and effectively.
A teacher assisting a student with their work in a classroom.
Kinvolved is a certified B Corporation offering a mobile and web application designed to reduce chronic absenteeism.
(Photo: Kinvolved)

Moving More Quickly


The pandemic expedited IT innovation in public education, but it’s still behind other sectors, says Alexandra Meis, co-founder of the certified B Corporation Kinvolved. “There’s so much catching up to do, due to the way we are looking at data in K-12 and the systems that are in place,” she says. “The broadband and the hard wiring in a lot of our schools and districts is abysmal.”

Meis and co-founder Miriam Altman, a former teacher in the New York City school system, have had firsthand experience with the impact of missed days in the classroom, and the communication problems between parents and schools. Meis had been an advocate for parents of autistic children at a South Bronx hospital.

They developed the mobile and web application KiNVO, with a mission to end absenteeism. “We see absenteeism really as the canary in the coal mine, typically the first sign that students might be experiencing a more critical challenge in their lives,” says Meis.

KiNVO integrates with district student information systems, gathering attendance data at least once each day. It automates notifications to parents if their child is absent, in the parent’s preferred language. These can be sent as text messages, says Meis, and lack of a Wi-Fi connection won’t prevent parents from receiving them. The app includes dashboards that can generate graphic representations of attendance data and provide evidence-based guidance for interventions.

The transition to remote learning made it necessary to track new forms of attendance and to generate notices when a student failed to log in to a learning platform or a Zoom call. These alerts helped parents understand more about the learning systems schools were using.

Kinvolved coaches districts, principals and educators to look at attendance on a daily basis, to more quickly identify students who are at risk, says Meis. In a calendar of 180 school days, a student only needs to miss 18 to be chronically absent. “If we’re looking at attendance data every other month, it’s too late for a lot of kids that have challenges.”

KiNVO has helped districts reduce chronic absence and improve graduation rates, but Meis believes that progress depends on more than software. “The most important thing is human interaction,” she says. “Our districts need more resources like guidance counselors and social workers and community liaisons to help educators and school districts build human connections.”

Looking Beyond Truancy


School absences reached unprecedented rates during the pandemic, and as schools intensify their efforts to recover students, with or without data, Robert Balfanz believes that the tone of this work matters.

“We really have to approach this from a problem solving, not a punitive, perspective,” he says. Historically, the only place where people got noticed for missing a lot of school was through truancy. Most states still have rules on the books that would allow districts to refer students to the justice system if they meet the legal definition of truancy.

That approach has proven to be ineffective, says Balfanz. Most kids want to be in school, and the issues that are keeping them out are real and need to be solved. It would be a mistake to tell students it’s their own fault that they are disengaged.

“As we make this more of an issue, we have to guard against falling back into seeing it as something to be handled legally and punitively and recognize that it should be handled with good data and problem solving — and that sometimes our own policies are counterproductive and we’ve got to fix them.”

Investment of stimulus funds in data systems and wraparound services to reduce chronic absenteeism is integral to the success of every attempt to help students who have fallen behind, says Hedy Chang of Attendance Works. “I will guarantee you that if kids don’t show up for whatever intervention or support or classroom you offer, it’s not going to work.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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