The battle against chronic student absenteeism has traditionally been waged in schools and communities, focusing on ways to engage students and families, address health and transportation barriers, and calibrate the level of support each student needs.
Increasingly, though, state policymakers have joined the fight, finding ways to ensure that districts are collecting and publishing actionable data and providing the sort of evidence-based interventions that work best for improving attendance amidst spiraling absenteeism rates post-pandemic.
Attendance Works and FutureEd recently reviewed attendance-related legislation nationally and found that at least 18 states have approved laws in the past decade clarifying rules around taking and reporting student attendance, requiring intervention strategies, and softening punitive approaches to truancy. This comes on top of 36 states and the District of Columbia agreeing in 2017 to make chronic absenteeism a metric in their accountability rubrics required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
The bills we reviewed take at least one, if not all four, of these key approaches to improving attendance:
Define attendance terms
In the past decade, educators and policymakers have shifted from tracking how many students show up for school every day to looking at how many have missed so many school days that they are academically at risk. Connecticut (2015), New Jersey (2018), Maine (2023), New Mexico (2019) and Nevada (2023) are among the states that have passed legislation defining chronic absenteeism as missing 10% of the school year in excused and unexcused absences. The U.S. Department of Education uses the same definition.
But defining chronic absenteeism is only a start. Having a standard definition of a day of attendance is also essential to comparing attendance rates across localities. School districts often use a range of standards for what constitutes a school day or even who is counted as a student, we found in an earlier analysis. Twenty states define an absence as missing at least half the school day, in line with the federal definition. Washington, D.C., in the past required students to attend 80% of the school day to be considered present, but found that definition captured too many students who were merely tardy. The city recently changed the standard to 60% of the school day.
Cynthia Rice ran into definition challenges when she began working on school attendance in New Jersey a decade ago. Most districts then were tracking average daily attendance, a measure of how many students show up every day, rather than chronic absenteeism.
Rice and her team at Advocates for Children of New Jersey used state data to identify every district where more than 10% of students were chronically absent and released a series of reports documenting their findings. Before each release, though, the group contacted school districts to share the information. Some initially questioned the data, since the numbers didn’t jibe with their attendance averages. Rice referred them back to state officials, who confirmed the numbers.
“There was a story behind every number,” recalls Rice. “When you have statewide data, [local leaders] may feel, ‘Well, that’s not us.’ But when you break it down by community and then it’s supported by the department saying, ‘No, that’s your number,’ it makes it harder to run away from.”
The advocacy led to a bill signed into law in 2018 creating a state definition of chronic absenteeism and requiring schools to track the metric. It also tasked schools with more than 10% of their student population identified as chronically absent to develop attendance plans that included the input from parents and families.
Promote analysis and public reporting of chronic absenteeism data
As Rice found in New Jersey, policymakers need granular data on schools and districts to recognize the extent of their student absenteeism problem. Without information on who is missing too much school, it’s hard for districts to understand why they’re absent or how to address those missed days. By requiring that districts report data and by making the data available publicly, states such as California, Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico and Oklahoma are enabling districts and the public to make comparisons and arming them with information to address problematic attendance.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires data to be publicly reported as part of state and local report cards, but states determine whether to make it easy to access disaggregated data broken down by student populations and grade levels. Only 18 states currently break down chronic absenteeism by grade level on their websites.
Require attendance teams and intervention plans
Once chronic absenteeism information is collected and reported, policymakers are empowering schools to take steps to improve attendance. Some states—including Connecticut, Maine, and New Jersey—require schools with high rates of student absenteeism to set up attendance teams that analyze the data and brainstorm solutions for improving attendance. Nevada’s 2023 legislation requires an advisory board in each county to support districts on attendance. Illinois and New Mexico specify that districts use a multi-tiered system of supports for dealing with absenteeism.
Even before passing its Attendance for Success Act in 2019, New Mexico had begun spending on attendance clerks and early warning systems for schools. The legislation requires every district to develop an attendance plan based on a tiered system of strategies, ranging from universal approaches to encourage better attendance for all students to intensive support for those facing severe challenges getting to school every day.
The arrival of the pandemic complicated implementation and, as in many states, led to considerably higher rates of chronic absenteeism. State officials are now reviewing what districts have done and planning several site visits to assess what changes may be needed to the law, says Gwen Warniment, executive director of New Mexico’s Legislative Education Study Committee. Officials are looking at what sort of interventions districts are including in their plans, whether they are using tiered approaches, and who is taking responsibility for attendance in each district.
“We’ve identified districts that have either pretty severe chronic absenteeism rates or very minimal and might be some bright spots for us to unpack,” she says. “We’re going to talk to the superintendents, the leadership team, educators, as well as students from each of those communities.”
Limit punitive approaches to truancy
With no evidence that punishing students for missed days leads to better attendance, some states are scaling back their punishments and moving toward more holistic approaches to reducing absenteeism. Texas, which in the past treated truancy as a criminal offense, decriminalized it in 2015 and required districts to provide behavior improvement plans, school-based community service, or counseling referrals. Ohio in 2016 required districts to provide truancy intervention plans. California in 2020 made it harder to send truant students to juvenile court.
Dan N. Johnson, a Utah lawmaker and former school administrator, became alarmed when he saw that more than a third of kindergartners and other primary school students were chronically absent post-pandemic. “I wanted to make sure that we didn’t criminalize kids or parents, but that we begin to look at a way to get parents re-engaged and get their kids back in school,” says Johnson, a Republican who represents a district in northeastern Utah.
Through a working group that included state officials, including from both the education and juvenile justice departments, Johnson crafted a bill that calls for using evidence-based practices to reduce absence and prevent students from entering the juvenile justice system. The bill mentions a series of interventions designed to improve attendance by developing stronger relationships among teachers, students and families. These include mentorship programs; family connection to community resources; and academic support through small group or individualized tutoring and teaching executive function skills.
“We really believe in local control, but we are sort of forcing people’s hands to make sure each of the LEAs has a policy related to tardies and attendance,” Johnson says.
Watch the FutureEd webinar State Policy Solutions for Reducing Student Absenteeism and read additional FutureEd resources on absenteeism.
*Photo credit: Attendance Works, 2017