Blog Article

Chronic Absence: It’s About Lost Instructional Time, Not Whether Absences are Excused or Unexcused

June 20, 2018

This is the sixth of our blog series highlighting attendance-related issues that are emerging as states begin to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In this post, we focus on what chronic absence is measuring and why it is important for all absences to be included in chronic absence calculations. Find the blog series here.

This fall for the first time, more than three quarters of states will be held accountable for the proportion of students who are chronically absent. Although the way that chronic absence is measured varies somewhat across states, it is most commonly defined as the percentage of students who are absent for 10 percent or more of their days on roll.

As educators and local education agency (LEA) administrators begin to think through the consequences of the new ESSA requirements, some have voiced concerns about the impact that chronic absence will have on school and district ratings. Their trepidation is understandable considering that only last year, most LEAs reported average daily attendance levels in the 90 percent range, a level that seemed to communicate high levels of school attendance. This year, they will report the percentage of students with worrisomely low attendance. For many schools, this number will show that a sizeable percentage of students are likely missing too much school to be academically successful.

As a result, Attendance Works has heard rumblings about potential efforts to exclude some excused absences, such as those due to illness or lack of access to health care, from the calculations and reporting of chronic absence. For example, recently proposed legislation in Connecticut sought to exclude absences for students who did not have proof of required immunizations. Although this legislation never made it to a vote, it is not difficult to see why it garnered some support.

After all, the thinking goes, some excused absences are beyond the control of schools. This is particularly true for student illnesses, given that they are an inevitable part of childhood. However, with a closer look, it is clear that omissions such as these would be a shift in the wrong direction and would compromise the usefulness, validity and predictive power of chronic absence. Consider the following:

  • Chronic absence is a powerful predictor of achievement because it measures the amount of instructional time a student has missed over the course of the school year. Research findings have documented the positive relationship between time and learning. Instructional quality and other factors are important, but this finding is clear: more time spent by students in intentional learning environments means more learning. Absences due to illness are typically the most frequently reported reason for missing school. Counting only a subset of these absences will significantly understate the number of students who are at risk of school failure due to poor attendance. It will also create a false impression of a school’s attendance problems and of the type and amount of resources it needs to reduce chronic absence.
  • Chronic absence emerged as a popular choice for measuring school quality and student success in large part because of its inherently strong measurement characteristics and explanatory power. These two factors also mean that it meets ESSA’s stringent indicator requirements, unlike other measures of attendance. The U.S. Department of Education highlighted, and most state education agencies (SEAs) chose the chronic absence metric because it would provide more and better data to guide public school improvement efforts. Reducing the scope of chronic absence is almost certain to reduce its power to deliver on this important promise.
  • Absences due to student illnesses may seem to be beyond the control of schools, but there are steps that educators can take to reduce student sick days. At the most basic level, educators need to ensure that students and families understand the impact of absences on achievement, have accurate, up-to-date information about the number of days their students have missed, and know when student illnesses are serious enough to warrant absence from school.
  • In addition, schools can help limit the spread of infectious illnesses by ramping up their use of proven public health protocols. For example, there are studies showing that daily use of antibacterial wipes on classroom hot spots, such as pencil sharpeners and doorknobs, significantly reduces the spread of colds and flues and, consequently, the number of absences.
  • Finally, schools can and should be involved with the management and treatment of students’ chronic illnesses to improve health outcomes, and to increase student attendance and engagement in school. Ensuring students have access to school health staff, such as a school nurse or school counselor, during the school day is a proven strategy for reducing chronic absenteeism. Providing absence data and training to school health staff so they are empowered to help families and students address health issues is essential.

A student’s uncontrolled asthma or the lack of trained school personnel to respond to an asthma attack, for example, are almost certain to increase their absences. The same is true of untreated mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. In addition to the health resources in their own school, educators can develop partnerships with community providers, including hospitals, community health clinics and local public health agencies, to expand their services and supports and to defray the costs associated with them.

We know that we shouldn’t aim for 100 percent attendance for all students. Some absences are unavoidable; encouraging children with fevers, for example, to come to school is never a good idea. Nor is making it impossible for students to attend important family events, such as funerals . However, the growing body of research shows that when schools use their data to problem-solve, remove barriers and provide students with supports and interventions, chronic absence drops, students’ exposure to instructional time increases, and students are more successful.

Counting all absences is a sea change in the reporting and accountability for attendance by most public schools, their LEAs and SEAs. It should herald a similar shift in the way that educators respond to student absences.

Jane Sundius is a Senior Fellow with Attendance Works.

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