A new report, Examining Disparities in Unexcused Absences Across California Schools, shows how overuse of the “unexcused” label for student absences could be deepening education inequities and interfering with efforts to improve attendance.
Any absence is concerning because it represents lost learning opportunities, but when an absence is labeled unexcused, it also affects how a student and their family are treated.
Why does labeling absences matter?
Although students don’t face punitive consequences for excused absences, they can be denied credit for missed work, excluded from extracurricular activities, and eventually taken to court and fined for unexcused absences. As absences accumulate, responses generally become more punitive. Yet punitive responses are unlikely to improve attendance when absences occur for reasons beyond the control of the student and their family, such as such as transportation challenges or, lack of access to health care. Rather, overuse of the unexcused absence label could undermine efforts to partner with students and families to identify the underlying challenges that cause students to miss school.
Imagine this relatively common scenario: Two students are sick. Both miss five days of school. One student has a family physician, and their parents are familiar with school policies. This student returns to school with a doctor’s note, and their five absences are excused. The other student’s family cannot afford to see a doctor. This second student returns to school without a doctor’s note, and their five absences are unexcused. The family receives a letter stating that their child is truant and they may be taken to court if the absenteeism continues. When this happens, a punitive response can seriously harm the relationship between the school and family.
What are the findings?
The report found that socioeconomically disadvantaged students are much more likely to have their absences labeled unexcused. This is also true for Black, Native American, Latinx and Pacific Islander students relative to White, Asian American and Filipino students. Black students experience the largest disparity. These disparities cannot be fully explained by poverty since they remained across differences in socioeconomic status.
Preliminary data also suggest that schools serving more socioeconomically disadvantaged students communicate more punitive approaches. More research is needed to understand why.
“Bright spot” schools
Despite these disparities, there is some good news: some schools are “bright spots,” with high attendance rates, less frequent use of the unexcused-absence label, and fewer disparities in labeling absences as unexcused. More research is needed to find out how these schools are achieving these positive results.
The study by researchers Clea McNeely, research professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee; Kevin Gee, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis; and Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, analyzed data from the California Department of Education DataQuest portal on excused and unexcused absenteeism rates during 2017–18 to 2021–22. The report was published by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent research center.
The analysis makes a compelling case for using data about unexcused absences to implement a more preventive, problem-solving and equitable response to poor attendance.
California is the first state in the country to publish data on absenteeism by type (i.e., excused and unexcused). The data is disaggregated by student population, grade and school, allowing educators and other stakeholders easy access to data that can identify where disparities in unexcused absences exist in their schools or districts.
Finding effective ways to improve school attendance is more important than ever given the dramatic increases in chronic absence nationwide.
Schools and districts can take action to address disparities in the coding of absences. The report includes five key recommendations for detecting and addressing disparities in the labeling of unexcused absences. These suggestions can be applied at the local and state level in California as well as by other states:
- Use data to learn about where disparities are most problematic and identify bright spot schools or districts which have better attendance and few differences in the labeling of unexcused absences.
- Invest in better practices and data systems for monitoring and understanding reasons for both excused and unexcused absences.
- Review and update local and state policies related to unexcused absences.
- Assess and improve how attendance practices and policies are communicated to students and families.
- Invest in professional development to improve attendance and truancy practice.
Read the full report, Examining Disparities in Unexcused Absences Across California Schools, on the PACE website.