Debunking the Myths About School Attendance


Myth 1: Attending Kindergarten Regularly Doesn’t Really Matter

Reality: Chronic absence (missing 10 percent of school days) in kindergarten is associated with lower academic performance in 1st grade, especially in reading for Latino students. For poor children, unable to make up for time on task, the poor performance extended through 5th grade. By 6th grade chronic absence is a clear predictor of drop-out. By 9th grade, missing 20 percent of the school year is a better predictor of dropping out than test scores.

Chronic absence in the early grades and beyond can affect all students when teachers must spend time reviewing concepts for children who missed the lesson in the first place. And it can cost schools money when state funding is linked to attendance. Chronic absence can serve as an early warning signal that a child or a school is headed off track. It can reflect unhealthy economic and social conditions.

Myth 2: We don’t need to worry about large number of students missing school until middle or high school.

Reality: While absenteeism is more widespread in secondary school, it still affects vast numbers of younger students. Nationally, one in 10 kindergarten and 1st grade students misses a month of school every year. In some districts, as many as one in four students in the primary grades are missing too much school time. This isn’t just truancy, since most young children don’t stay home without a parent’s knowledge. It’s important to address the problem in the early grades before a student heads off track academically and bad attendance habits become entrenched.

Myth 3: Most school already monitor when students are chronically absent.

Reality: Even when teachers take the roll daily, the data they collect is not typically analyzed to reveal chronic absence patterns. Rather, most schools measure school-wide attendance—or they track truancy, which doesn’t capture excused absences. When school districts analyze all absences, they are often surprised at how many students are missing 10 percent or more of the school year.

Even if schools track absences for individual students, they often don’t analyze patterns that can reveal when a particular neighborhood or classroom is disproportionately affected. These patterns can suggest the best remedies for reducing absences.

Myth 4: Because families are ultimately responsible for children getting to class, there’s not much schools can do to improve attendance.

Reality: Schools across the nation are starting to track chronic absence and seeing better attendance. The first step is analyzing the data to find patterns that can inform the response. Look for:

  • Systemic reform – Baltimore cut its middle school chronic absence rate in half in large part due to structural changes. The city shut down its most troubled middle schools and created, instead, kindergarten-to-eighth grade campuses that kept sixth graders more engaged or sixth-to-12th grade schools that could serve older students retained in lower grades. At the same time, officials actively reviewed their discipline policy and took a strong stance against suspending students for minor, non-violent offences. For example, they ceased suspending students for truancy.
  • Barriers to attendance – A careful analysis can reveal pockets of chronic absence that can be addressed with tailored responses. If absences are clustered in one neighborhood, consider a school bus or safe walking route; if asthma or other chronic illness is the problem, beef up health services. If parents don’t understand the consequences of absence in the early grades, educate them. If chronic absence is clustered in a particular classroom, examine whether the teacher needs help developing stronger partnerships with parents and a more engaging curriculum.
  • Targeted community responses – If the broader strategies don’t work, bring together schools, health and social services to reach out to children and families on a case by case basis. Use attendance clerks and volunteer mentors to check regularly with families and use public and nonprofit agencies to provide transportation, counseling or other needs.

All of these approaches involve parents in the equation, but can also engage afterschool and morning programs, health care providers and social services networks.