November 14th, 2011

When 95% is Not an A

We’re fond of saying that when it comes to school attendance, 90 percent is not an A. After all, if students miss 10 percent of the school year, they’re more likely to struggle academically, our research shows. But a new analysis we’re releasing today with the Child and Family Policy Center suggests that when it comes to average school-wide attendance, even 95 percent can sometimes be problematic.

The study, Chronic Elementary Absenteeism: A Problem Hidden in Plain Sight, looks at attendance data for elementary schools in three urban districts. We had two measures for each school: average daily attendance (ADA) and a chronic absence rate, or the percentage of students missing more than 10 percent of the school year. We then plotted this information on a graph to see to what extent ADA predicts chronic absenteeism.

We found:

• Schools with average daily attendance rates higher than 97 percent rarely have a problem with chronic absence.

• Schools between 93 and 97 percent need to analyze their data further to determine the extent of the problem. The chronic absence rates in schools right at 95 percent, for instance, ranged from an acceptable 7 percent to a troublesome 23 percent.

• Schools with ADA rates below 93 percent are almost certainly dealing with high concentrations of absenteeism.

What does this mean for schools? It means if the ADA rate falls below 97 percent, as it does on many campuses, school officials need to dig deeper into the data to see how many students are chronically absent, what patterns emerge and what sort of interventions would bring students back to school.

Too much chronic absenteeism can not only drag achievement for the missing students but slow down instruction for the whole class. And in states that base school funding on attendance, absenteeism can cost schools money.

A high chronic absence rate may signal systemic problems in the building, such as a negative school climate, ineffective discipline practices or chaotic classrooms. Or there may be community and family challenges, such as a lack of access to health care, unreliable transportation, high levels of violence or unaffordable housing.

Strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism require public recognition of the problem and community support for addressing it, as well as school-wide policy changes and strategies targeted toward with specific children and their families.

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