By Attendance Works
Nine out of 10 U.S. school districts experience some level of chronic absenteeism among students, but half of the nation’s chronically absent students are concentrated in just 4 percent of its districts, according to a new analysis of federal data.
Preventing Missed Opportunity, released on Tuesday, September 6, by Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center underscores how this often overlooked factor is dragging down achievement in communities everywhere – from sprawling suburban places where absenteeism can fester in the shadow of academic achievement to small rural communities where geography complicates getting to school. Disadvantaged urban neighborhoods are particularly hard hit, according to this study of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.
“What’s clear from our analysis is that chronic absenteeism follows poverty wherever it is found in significant concentrations,” said Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who leads the Everyone Graduates Center.
Many of the communities with the highest rates are economically, socially and racially isolated. An interactive data map shows the districts most affected.
“Chronic absence is one of the earliest signs that we are failing to provide an equal opportunity to learn,” said Chang, executive director of Attendance Works and co-author ofPreventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence. “A day lost to school absenteeism is a day lost to learning.”
The study, released in connection with Attendance Awareness Month in September, builds on June’s first-ever release of chronic absence data in the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection.
The data showed that 6.5 million students, or more than 13 percent nationwide, missed three or more weeks of school in excused or unexcused absences that year. That’s enough time to erode their achievement and threaten their chance of graduating. More than half of those chronically absent students are in elementary or middle school. Some gaps in the data suggest the numbers may be an undercount.
“Our analysis shows that large numbers of chronically absent students can be reached in a relatively small number of districts and schools,” said Balfanz, co-author of the analysis. “This tells us we need to combine widespread awareness of the importance of addressing chronic absenteeism with high intensity, community wide, comprehensive efforts in the small number of highly impacted school districts. This is how we can make chronic absenteeism rare rather than common.”
Further analysis of the data revealed:
- 89 percent of the nation’s school districts report some level of chronic absence. This ranges from two chronically absent students in one district to 72,376 in another.*
- Half the chronically absent students, however, are found in just 4 percent of the nation’s school districts and 12 percent of its schools. These 654 districts are spread across 47 states and the District of Columbia.
- This trend of large numbers of chronically absent students affecting a handful of districts also holds true for states. In fact, 10 percent of the chronically absent students nationwide can be found in just 30 districts in two states with very large student populations, California and Texas.
- Some of the places with the largest numbers of chronically absent students are affluent, suburban districts known for academic achievement. For example, Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., two suburbs of Washington, D.C., each have more than 20,000 chronically absent students. While their rates are close to the national average, the large numbers reflect both the sheer size of the districts and their growing populations of low-income students.
- Districts serving disadvantaged urban neighborhoods have both high rates and high numbers of chronically absent students. Cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit report that more than a third of students are chronically absent. The concentration of intergenerational poverty in these communities of color and the web of systemic challenges families encounter – not enough affordable housing, poor access to health care, absence of well-resourced schools, too much exposure to violence and environmental pollutants – all complicate school attendance. Punitive school discipline practices such as overuse of suspension also can contribute to absenteeism as well as to community distrust of schools.
- Many small, rural school districts have few students but extremely high rates of chronic absenteeism. Transportation and other challenges related to poverty can keep students from getting to school regularly in remote areas. For example, 31 percent of the 504 students in Arkansas’ Bradford School District missed three or more weeks of school. So did 31 percent of the 2,752 students in Alabama’s Colbert County School District. Washington state reports that 119 of its districts have rates of 30 percent or greater.
Given the scope of the problem, the study by Balfanz and Chang lays out key steps school districts and states can take to turn around attendance. State and local leaders need to know the size of their chronic absence problem to understand how to improve educational outcomes. Information about the concentration and the severity of absenteeism also sheds light on the intensity and nature of support required.
“Leaders can use chronic absence data to engage students, families, community organizations and government agencies in unpacking barriers to getting to school and crafting solutions,” Chang said. “The federal Every Student Succeeds Act offers a critical opportunity for building chronic absence into the school accountability systems used to measure progress and identify where additional support is needed to improve student performance.”
Featuring success stories in communities such as San Francisco and Grand Rapids, Mich., as well as states like Arkansas and Connecticut, the brief shows chronic absence is a solvable problem. It also shares how communities are tackling chronic absence through efforts like the U.S. Department of Education’s My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors initiative and Diplomas Now.
“The challenge and opportunity of improving attendance is to avoid making the all too common, incorrect assumption that chronically absent students and their parents simply do not care. Instead of blame, schools should use chronic absence as a trigger for collective, strategic, creative problem solving,” Chang said.