March 19th, 2014

States Begin Tracking Chronic Absence But Lack a Common Definition

A new brief released by the Data Quality Campaign and Attendance Works shows that states are beginning to pay attention to chronic absence, a metric that can identify students in need of support and provide comparative data across states and districts.

“We are pleased to see movement in this direction,” said Hedy Chang of Attendance Works.  “For too long we’ve concentrated only on how many students show up for school every day, rather than looking at how many are accumulating so many absences that they fall behind academically. When we do that, we can start to understand why absences are happening and how to turn them around.”

 This new national portrait shows that 45 states collect student-level information on attendance, and 21 say they are tracking chronic absence. But only 11 of those actually define chronic absence as missing an excessive amount of school for any reason, excused or unexcused.

Seven states surveyed by the DQC consider students chronically absent when they miss a certain percentage of school days, while four others use a certain number of days as the threshold.  Another seven counted only unexcused absences or truancy in their calculations of chronic absence, and one counted only excused absences. The rest did not offer a definition.

At least 17 states say they are producing district and school level reports on chronic absence rates. But, again variations in how states understand and define chronic absence make it difficult to compare results.

The findings suggest that attendance is increasingly seen as an important indicator for states. Some, including New Jersey and Hawaii, recently added the metric to their school accountability formulas, while others track it through early warning indicator systems designed to reduce dropout rates, according to a report produced by Attendance Works last fall.

“We tend to think of attendance as a school or district responsibility, but states can play a big role, too,” said Elizabeth Dabney, Senior Associate for Policy Analysis and Research at DQC. “States have can provide districts with multiple years of data, allow for comparisons across the state and help follow those highly mobile students who move from district to district.”

The results of the DQC analysis also underscore the need to forge a common definition of what is chronic absence.  Attendance Works encourages states and districts to define chronic absence as missing 10 percent or more of school days including all absences, excused or unexcused or even suspensions.

Attendance Works promotes this definition for several reasons. First, it is based upon research showing that missing this much school is associated with lower academic performance and drop out. Second, this definition allows schools and communities to identify at-risk students earlier in the school year and start to turn the problem around. If you’re waiting for a child to miss 15 or 20 days, you might be waiting too long.

The definition also allows for better detection of attendance problems among highly mobile students, who often move too frequently to ever accumulate 18 to 20 days of absence in a single school or district. A common definition also allows for comparable data across states and districts that have different lengths of school year.  Finally, adopting a common definition of chronic absence across state and federal agencies allows for more efficient data collection and reporting

Research suggests that nationwide as many as 7.5 million students are chronically absent, including 1 in 10 kindergarten and first graders. Children living in poverty are more likely both to be chronically absent and to suffer academically because of the missed days.

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