Director's Note
If you had a chance to rewrite federal education policy to reflect what we now know about school attendance, what would you do?

I’d start with establishing a common definition of chronic absence, so that all states and school districts are measuring the same thing. I’d require the inclusion of attendance data in state longitudinal student databases. I’d use federal grant money to support the kind of school-community partnerships that can move the needle on attendance. And I’d make sure schools are held accountable for improving chronic absence and other attendance measures in their annual improvement plans.

With Congress mulling an overhaul of ESEA, there might be a chance to build awareness of these concepts about chronic absence and make some progress. What are your ideas?

- Hedy Chang

Policy Spotlight

President Barack Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan are urging Congress to move quickly to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Discussions about reauthorization offer opportunities to educate policymakers about the realities of school attendance.

In the past decade, research has broadened our understanding of the effect chronic absence has on academic achievement. We know first graders who miss too much kindergarten suffer academically; for low income students, the ill effects can extend through fifth grade. By sixth grade, chronic absence becomes a red flag that a student will never finish high school. By ninth grade, absenteeism predicts who will dropout better than eighth grade test scores do.

videoSecretary Duncan recognizes the importance of school attendance. “If you get 90 percent on a test, you’re doing pretty good,” he told funders and advocates at a recent gathering of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.  ”If your attendance is 90 percent in 180-day year you are missing 18 days of school, nearly a month.”

He also stressed the importance of reducing absences in the early grades. “We know in preK and K who our students most at risk are, those students who are missing, 15, 20, 25 days a year,” he said. “We know right there if we don’t intervene, these are our future dropouts.”

Right now, though, few states or schools monitor chronic absence rates for students or schools. Federal law doesn't require it, and few states ask for it. Read more.


  • Common Definition of Chronic Absence. The federal government is in the best position to establish a common definition for all states. Attendance Works recommends defining chronic absence as missing 10 percent of the school year, the point which research links to poorer academic performance. This percent-based definition would encourage ongoing monitoring over the course of a school year and comparison across districts.

  • State Data Systems.  The longitudinal systems that capture test scores for each student should also include attendance data, starting in pre-K. Currently all but five states include attendance in their systems, and 12 track it in real time, according to the Data Quality Campaign. The exceptions are some of the largest states: California, Colorado, New York, Illinois and New Jersey.  Including the data allows states to track absences for students who move between districts and assess which districts and schools need help with attendance.
  • Funding. Federal grant programs should encourage schools and pre-K programs, in partnership with community agencies, to develop early warning systems that use chronic absence as a key indicator and employ parent engagement and research-based strategies to improve attendance. School Improvement Grants are a particularly good vehicle, as are Full Service Community School and Race to the Top grants.
  • Accountability. Attendance should be a metric in school improvement efforts, school report cards and EDFacts reporting. Long before students take their first state standardized tests, attendance data can tip educators off to health or family concerns that may drag down academic achievement.

For more information, view our Policy PowerPoint.


Questions? For more information contact: or
Attendance Works Director Hedy Chang at

Attendance Works would like to express its deep appreciation to the
Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for investing in our development and launch as a national initiative. 
In addition, we thank The Stuart Foundation,
San Francisco Foundation and The California Endowment for supporting
our campaign in California.


Issue 3, April 2011

Attendance Works is a national and state initiative that promotes awareness of the important role that school attendance plays in achieving academic success. It aims to ensure that every school in every state not only tracks chronic absence data for its individual students but also partners with families and community agencies to help those children.

Reserach and Reports