States Attend to Chronic Absenteeism

The U.S. Department of Education released its first nationally comprehensive data on chronic absenteeism in June, revealing that about 6.5 million students—or 13 percent of the total student population—were absent at least 15 days during the 2013-2014 school year. The problem is so extensive that in October 2015 the presidential administration launched the Every Student, Every Day initiative to reduce chronic absenteeism by at least 10 percent each year, beginning in the current school year. 

"Chronic absenteeism is a national problem," said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a June 10 press release. "Frequent absences from school can be devastating to a child's education. Missing school leads to low academic achievement and triggers drop outs. Millions of young people are missing opportunities in postsecondary education, good careers and a chance to experience the American dream."

Although the Department of Education’s data is shining a national light on the problem, chronic absenteeism has been a priority for many states for years. 

“States have a huge role to play,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a non-profit organization that promotes best practices around school attendance. “Education in practice is local; states are where you take it to scale.”

She said one of the states’ primary tasks is collecting and analyzing attendance data from districts and schools to determine the extent and causes of chronic absenteeism and the populations it is disproportionately affecting. Creating statewide, standard definitions of chronic absenteeism and truancy is also key. Unlike truancy, chronic absenteeism counts both excused and unexcused absences—taking into account frequent doctor’s visits and other excused absences that still affect a student’s ability to be present and learn.  

“We can hold schools accountable that way,” Chang said, citing Connecticut, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington as some of the states that are leaders in collecting data and using it to support schools in addressing the problem. 

The Connecticut State Department of Education, or CSDE, created EdSight, a publicly accessible portal to store and manage their data on school performance. The portal’s chronic absenteeism data is searchable by district, school and grade, so users can easily track data trends. They’ve also included chronic absenteeism as an indicator in their Next Generation Accountability Model, a holistic, multifactor perspective of district and school performance that incorporates student growth over time.

“The schools are collecting data in real time so they can have real-time interventions rather than addressing the problem postmortem,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, chief operating officer at the CSDE. 

Because the causes of chronic absenteeism are often complicated and varied—from chronic disease to unreliable transportation to homelessness to neighborhood violence—parsing out why students are missing school is often done on a community-based or even individual level by the schools. The CSDE helps the schools partner with state and community resources to address attendance barriers.

“We got a call (from a school) concerned about kids not having the health screenings and immunizations to be able to come to school,” said Russell-Tucker. “We were able to help the school connect to resources to help. We are able to be matchmakers and help make those connections.” 

Another Connecticut school found from their data that kids from a particular housing area were having trouble making it to school because they relied on walking to get there—and their neighborhood sidewalks were not cleared in time after a snowstorm. “The district was able to work with other city departments and prioritize getting sidewalks cleared after the snowstorm to facilitate safe and easy access to walking to school,” said Russell-Tucker. 

When officials at Connecticut’s Consolidated School District of New Britain realized that 30 percent of kindergartners and 24 percent of first graders were missing at least 10 percent of the school year, they partnered with Attendance Works to identify ways to reduced chronic absenteeism, including hiring outreach workers to educate parents on the long-term effects of missing school—even at the kindergarten level—and connect families with social services and other resources to remove barriers to attendance. They assembled attendance review teams that include teachers, administrators, social workers, guidance counselors and school nurses to meet weekly to discuss individual cases and plan interventions. Their efforts cut chronic absenteeism rates nearly in half since the 2011-2012 school year and substantially improved their students’ reading levels in the process. 

In 2015, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation that defined chronic absenteeism and required schools to track data on chronic absenteeism and establish attendance review teams to address it when needed. The legislation also required that the CSDE create a chronic absenteeism prevention and intervention plan. 

“The Committee on Children in the legislature initiated the CT Kids’ Report Card—a policy tool designed to help track the well-being of Connecticut’s children,” said Russell-Tucker. “Chronic absence is a headline indicator in the report card. Legislation coupled with CSDE policy and practice are driving strategic actions at the district level.”