Research has shown again and again that students who are chronically absent lag behind on test scores and other measures. But what happens to their classmates when there is too much chronic absenteeism in the classroom? Can good attenders suffer academically when their classmates miss too much school?
A new study by University of California Santa Barbara professor Michael Gottfried shows a clear correlation between high rates of chronic absence in the classroom and weaker academic performance for all students. In fact, students in classes with no chronically absent students had test scores that were 10% higher on average than those in classrooms where half the students were chronic absentees. The spillover effects are especially pronounced for children from low-income families and students with behavioral issues.
Why does this happen? Gottfried suggests that teachers might be slowing down instruction to make sure that chronically absent students catch up. Also, he theorizes that students who are missing that much school can become behavioral problems, disrupting class by acting out. He writes:
“Just like academic disruptions, behavioral disruptions also might slow the learning process for non-absent peers, as teachers must devote their time and resources to classroom management rather than to instruction. Again, while this may occur for any degree of absenteeism, it is hypothesized that chronically absent students might invoke even greater academic and behavioral disruptions.”
Gottfried’s study, Chronic Absence in the Classroom Context: Effects on Achievement, has been accepted for publication in Urban Education. His analysis focuses on elementary school students. He looks specifically at 23,000 third and fourth grade students to evaluate two years of test results. And he chose a large East Coast urban district because many of these districts have large numbers of students facing significant barriers to getting to school every day. His study defines chronic absence as missing 18 or more days in a school year in excused and unexcused absences.
Consistent with prior research, he found students who were chronically absent had lower test scores. What’s unique about this study was that Gottfried found that classmates also scored lower when their peers were chronically absent. In other words, when students in the classroom had good attendance, everyone in that room scored higher than students in classrooms with chronically absent peers. The effects were greater for girls than for boys and also greater for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and those identified as having a behavioral issue. Gottfried writes:
Thus, those facing additional challenges may be placed at even greater risk for academic decline when considering the role of classmates’ chronic absences. Nonetheless, the findings do indicate that all students are negatively affected by this behavior.
Recognizing this, what can we do? Gottfried recommends:
- Schools and districts should track chronic absence data rather than looking simply at average daily attendance.
- Schools and districts should break down chronic absence rates by classrooms, so they can detect possible problems and identify solutions
- Urban districts and city leadership should examine the barriers that students face in getting to school – such as health problems, unreliable transportation or unstable housing – and address these issues, as well as providing support for students in classes with high chronic absence rates
- Educators need to focus on absenteeism in the early grades and intervene with students. They should engage community partners, such as afterschool providers and mentoring program, to support chronically absent students.