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Report: ‘Attendance gap’ starts early, erodes students' success


Lost learning time often means lost potential.

That’s the message from a new national report from nonprofits Attendance Works and Healthy Schools Campaign. 

Not to be confused with skipping school, chronic absenteeism means missing 10 percent or more of a school year for any reason.  In Missouri, that adds up to about three and a half weeks of class time.

Credit SHUTTRKINGKT / Flickr

Last year, St. Louis Public Radio reported extensively on chronic absenteeism in its seriesAccounted For.  While the reasons for repeated or prolonged student absences can be complicated and difficult to untangle, the common denominator is often poverty.

Tracking chronic absenteeism is different than  measuring average daily attendance, which can mask the number of students missing a significant amount of class time. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a video that explains the research and methods for tracking chronic absenteeism.

Below are some takeaways from the report.

In the early grades

High rates of chronic absenteeism can be seen as early as kindergarten. They generally decline through elementary school, and then the rates pick up again in high school. Nationally, an estimated one in 10 kindergartners are chronically absent, according to the report. Missing that much time can set students up for a string of academic struggles, including trouble with reading in third grade and ultimately a greater likelihood of dropping out of school.

“If you’re chronically absent in kindergarten or first grade because of an asthma issue, then by third grade you’re not reading at grade level and by sixth grade you don’t like school because it was never a positive experience,” said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works and author of the report. “Now maybe you’re truant and you’re skipping school. But you’re losing sight of the fact that we never created an equal opportunity for this child to be successful in school.”

Chang said schools can’t solve the problem alone, and strong community partnerships are needed to ensure more students make it to school every day. This is especially true, she said, when it comes to meeting the health needs of students.

The chief health culprit for chronic absenteeism is asthma at all ages, according to the report; it accounts for 14 million missed school days. Dental problems contribute 2 million more. The report also notes that absences due to mental health are hard to measure but are likely a contributing factor for many absences.

(We have learned of a technical problem that may prevent a graphic from showing on our site. If you do not see a chart showing student absences of three or more days a month, you can follow the link.)_

Murky national picture

A patchwork of state attendance laws makes it hard to get a clear picture of chronic absenteeism in America. So, the report used 2011 and 2013 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which asks fourth and eighth grade students across the country how many days they missed in the month prior to taking the test.

In Missouri, roughly one in five students who took the test and whoqualified for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure for poverty, missed three or more days.  That’s compared to 15 percent for students from more well off homes. 

That puts the state about on a par with the national average -- and nowhere near the top when it comes to statewide averages.  At No. 1 is the District of Columbia where 30 percent of fourth graders and 33 percent of eighth graders who qualify for free or reduced price lunch missed three or more days the month before taking theNAEP.  Illinois was near the bottom, with about 20 percent in both grade levels.      

Researchers may soon get a better handle on how widespread chronic absenteeism. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights started asking schools to track students who missed 15 or more school days.  Typically there’s a two-year delay before data are sorted and publicly available.      

“This data will give us a sense of how big of a problem this is for us as a country and whether there are some areas or regions that have worse levels,” Chang said.  “It might also give us some insights into what we call ‘positive outliers.’  Districts, schools or states, which based on their demographics you might think have higher levels but don’t because they’re based in good practice.”

While the new national data will be helpful, Chang said that state tracking is the key to solving the problem at the local level.  

What we know from Missouri data

Three years ago Missouri began requiring school districts to track the number of students missing 10 percent or more of learning time.  The new standard is called 90-90, with the goal to have 90 percent of students in class 90 percent or more of the time. Those numbers give a more detailed picture of how the state stacks up compared to national data in three areas highlighted in the report.  Click here to see attendance rates for the local school districts.

In every state, absenteeism among poor students undermined test scores. The report finds that 23 percent of poor fourth graders missed three or more days in the month before the NAEP, compared to 17 percent of their peers. Data for all students in Missouri, regardless of economic status, show 11.4 percent of students missed enough school to be considered chronically absent last year. That number was about 16 percent of students who qualified for free and reduced price lunch.    

There’s an attendance gap between minority and white students.  Nationally, the highest rates of chronic absenteeism were among American Indian/Alaskan Native students. African-American and Hispanic students typically have higher levels with some variations in localities and states.  In Missouri, 10 percent of white students were chronically absent last school year, compared to 12 percent of Hispanic students and 17.2 percent of African-American students.    

Students with disabilities are more likely to miss too much school. Nationally, students with disabilities are 25 to 40 percent more likely to have high rates of absenteeism than their peers, according to the report. Some of these absences can be attributed to their health issues, but others occur because of inappropriate placements, bullying or school aversion that often affects learning-disabled children.  In Missouri, 16.4 percent of special education students missed enough class time to be considered chronically absent. 

Watch a primer on chronic absenteeism from St. Louis Public Radio's series, Accounted For

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Tim Lloyd grew up north of Kansas City and holds a masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia. Prior to joining St. Louis Public Radio, he launched digital reporting efforts for Harvest Public Media, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded collaboration between Midwestern NPR member stations that focuses on agriculture and food issues. His stories have aired on a variety of stations and shows including Morning Edition, Marketplace, KCUR, KPR, IPR, NET, WFIU. He won regional Edward R Murrow Awards in 2013 for Writing, Hard News and was part of the reporting team that won for Continuing Coverage. In 2010 he received the national Debakey Journalism Award and in 2009 he won a Missouri Press Association award for Best News Feature.
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