Chronic Absenteeism’s Effect on Learning

Last week, I had the privilege of talking with a Rhode Island public school teacher; she told me that, in her opinion, one of the biggest challenges in our schools today is absenteeism. She told me that she routinely sees students who miss 30 or more days in a school year! Chronic absence, defined as students who have missed ten percent or more of the school year, can dramatically affect learning – not just for that absent student, who misses instruction time and often has gaps in his or her learning, but also for other students, since teachers may have to backtrack or spend additional time reviewing concepts and skills. Frequent absences are correlated with low academic achievement and high dropout rates.

Interestingly, Rhode Island is one of only six states that actually measure chronic absence. In all six of these states, low-income students are the most likely to be chronically absent, regardless of their gender or ethnic background. According to a report released in May 2012 by Johns Hopkins University, students miss school for reasons that fall into the following three categories: students who cannot attend due to illness, family responsibilities, housing instability, etc.; students who will not attend to avoid bullying, unsafe conditions, or embarrassment/harassment; and students who do not attend because they or their parents see no value in being there or they have something else they’d rather do.

Because most chronically absent students are low-income, the problem tends to be concentrated in urban areas; in RI, the four areas where chronic absenteeism is the most significant are Central Falls, Middletown, Providence, and Woonsocket. This is true for both elementary school students and older students; the chart below shows the percentage of students missing more than 10% of the school year:

School District K-3 Chronic Absences MS Chronic Absences HS Chronic Absences

Central Falls 18% 19% 49%

Middletown 20% 29% 50%

Providence 20% 26% 41%

Woonsocket 25% 36% 48%

By comparison, Barrington has a chronic absenteeism rate of 2 – 6%, and East Greenwich’s ranges from 4 – 10%. However, there are other districts whose numbers fall somewhere in the middle; for high school students, 18 of Rhode Island’s 34 districts - more than half - have a chronic absence rate of 15% or higher. Worst of all, these numbers may not include children who have un-enrolled in one school district (due to a move, for example) but have not yet reenrolled in another school district. You can view the full list of all chronic absence rates in RI in the 2013 KidsCount Factbook. Overall, 18% of RI’s 142,000 students (25,560 students) miss at least 18 days of school every year.

What are the implications of chronic absenteeism? First, students with high rates of absence are at risk of academic failure, dropping out of school, and engaging in risky behaviors. Second, if a large percentage of students are not in school to receive instruction, how can we measure their performance (or that of their teachers) on standardized achievement tests? The validity of those test scores must be called into question. This means that school rankings based upon student performance on NECAPs, for example, should be taken with a grain of salt: a school can have the best teachers in the state, but if the students aren’t there to learn, they will not demonstrate proficiency in the subjects they have missed.

This leads back to the question of social promotion, the practice of passing a student along to the next grade level regardless of his or her achievement. Should a student who has missed more than 20 days of school be promoted to the next grade? What about a student who has missed more than 40 days of school? Rhode Island does not have a statewide policy on chronic absences; many district policies simply state that multiple absences may result in a referral to a truancy officer or to family court. Providence’s attendance policy states that a student who misses 20 or more days of school “shall be denied course or grade level credit unless s/he is able to demonstrate course or grade level proficiency consistent with the Providence Scope and Sequence framework document.” It goes on to state that, since the Providence School Board believes that the district must provide ongoing support and intervention to prevent failure, the student “shall be provided with multiple options and opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.” According to the teacher I spoke with, it is rare for a student to be retained due to chronic absence, even when that absence results in academic failure.

There are many things we can do, both at the state and district level, to ameliorate this problem. Rhode Island has taken an important step by collecting data on chronic absenteeism. Now we need to acknowledge that chronic absenteeism is a problem, albeit a bigger problem in some districts than in others. The report published by Johns Hopkins suggests several policy changes that can be made to support student attendance. Tackling chronic absenteeism also requires support personnel who have the time to delve into each student’s story and learn the reasons behind the absences; in Las Vegas, for example, an attendance counselor learned that one boy was missing school because he was the sole breadwinner in his family. Chronic absenteeism affects five to seven million students nationwide and over 25,000 students in the Ocean State; we need to increase the number of students attending school regularly if we are going to help them to succeed.

This article was originally published in GoLocalProv.

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