Research and experience by educators shows us that every day a student is in school is an opportunity to learn, build relationships and access support, making it unwise to ignore absences no matter how they are coded. In recent months, Attendance Works has been asked about our assessment of a study of elementary absenteeism in Madison, Wisconsin which concludes that attendance policy should focus solely on unexcused absences and should not use chronic absence as a measure of school accountability. We find that the conclusions drawn are problematic, for a number of reasons.
First, we are concerned that focusing attendance policy only on unexcused absences may lead schools to think they don’t need to worry about excessive absences due to quarantine or other Covid concerns. Covid-related absences are typically excused. Yet the extensive lost instructional time and extreme levels of absenteeism occurring at this time appears to be having devastating academic effects based upon our conversations with districts. A recent national analysis shows that the impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning was significant, leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics, and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. At the same time, chronic absence rates have nearly tripled, according to the analysis.
Second, although the Madison, Wisconsin study found that only unexcused absences were associated with lower 3rd grade math and reading test scores, other research shows that excused absences have an adverse impact on academics. For example, a 2009 study examining test scores of 2nd through 4th graders in the Philadelphia School District found that excused absences had negative impacts on achievement in math and reading for 3rd graders, even though the impact of unexcused absences was greater.
Third, we would avoid drawing conclusions solely based upon the experiences of elementary students from one locality that isn’t necessarily reflective of the country as a whole or other grades. Madison, for example, has a relatively lower chronic absence level (10%) than the nationwide average (16%). Prior research suggests affluent families are better able to make up for missed instructional time in the elementary grades. Among older students, however, even wealthy parents can find it difficult to offer their children opportunities to make up for missed instructional time in advanced coursework. Research shows that by middle school, chronic absence consistently predicts lower rates of graduation for all students, regardless of their families’ income.
Fourth, we believe it is a mistake to assume that the negative impact of unexcused absences from school is only due to challenges experienced by the student and families that are occurring outside of school. Additional studies show that what happens in school can significantly contribute to missing school. Parents are less likely to send their children to school if they worry that school is physically unsafe, whether that be from possible Covid exposure or the lack of a school nurse to help manage a chronic illness. Students are less apt to show up if they don’t feel emotionally safe, or the curriculum is not challenging or engaging. Studies also show that punitive discipline practices can cause students to miss school because they are suspended and discourage students from showing up when they are permitted to return.
When examining the finding that unexcused absences have a stronger association with worse academic outcomes, we must also consider the adverse impact of the punitive treatment of students by schools when an absence is unexcused. For example, students with an unexcused absence are often not allowed to turn in homework. Unexcused absences can result in impersonal letters that threaten court action rather than build relationships and offer support, even though research shows that a caring communication is more likely to improve attendance. This is why we should always take a positive, problem-solving approach when responding to absences, including when they are unexcused.
To make matters even more complicated, the coding of absences as excused and unexcused can be arbitrary and biased. Absences are generally considered excused only if they fall within a narrow band of reasons. In many districts a student who has a note from a doctor or a parent receives an excused absence, while a peer who lacks access to a doctor or lives with a parent unable to write a note in English receives an unexcused absence. Comparing the proportion of absences that are considered excused, unexcused or due to suspensions for different student populations helps reveal biases that cause students in poverty and from racial minorities, to have higher rates of truancy.
Monitoring chronic absence is key to recovery planning and responding strategically to the instructional and social-emotional loss experienced by millions of students during the pandemic. This data, along with information about poverty, provides critical insights about where funding and support is needed to reduce educational inequities. We support using chronic absence as an accountability metric because it is an important tool and valuable lever for school improvement, not a silver bullet for closing achievement gaps.
Data on chronic absence allow us to identify schools that may need to work internally to improve conditions for learning and engagement, and see schools which need to expand their partnerships with nonprofit or public agencies to address challenges occurring outside of school. Chronic absence makes it easier to identify and connect students — as early as possible — to positive, engaging supports that address barriers, healing and resilience that motivate them to attend. And it allows us to detect and shine a spotlight on the districts and schools that are successfully improving attendance and engagement, so that other school communities can adopt similar actions.
Regular attendance is vital for student success all year long. Monitoring chronic absence — and tracking whether absences are excused, unexcused or due to suspension — can help schools, districts and community partners take steps to ensure students and their families stay connected and learning, even with today’s trauma, significant economic and health challenges and disrupted school operations.
*Homepage Photo Credit: Photos by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages