Chronic School Absenteeism in the United States

October 28, 2016 Education

Chronic absenteeism is defined as when a student misses more days of school than a particular threshold—in these data, measured as 15 total days in the 2013-14 school year—a measure that does not depend on the reason for the absence. That is, a student can be chronically absent if they miss the requisite number of school days for both unexcused and excused absences. This includes all days a student spends out-of-school for unexcused absence (truancy), exclusionary disciplinary action (out-of-school suspension), sick days, family vacations, or being kept at home to opt-out of standardized exams.

An underlying assumption of every policy in education is that students attend school. Students do of course miss school, and for a variety of reasons. These reasons range from illness, family vacations, and residential instability, to skipping school due to conditions in the school itself like bullying or test-avoidance, to those who fail to attend school because they do not see its value (Balfanz and Byrnes, 2012). Regardless of reason, when students are absent from school, they are not learning what is being taught, resulting in lower performance on coursework, course exams, and standardized tests. Poor performance in school, especially course failures, in turn predicts high school dropout—a status associated with a lifetime of poor economic outcomes. High absence rates may also hurt classmates with high attendance, to the extent that teachers use class time to remediate or repeat lessons (Goodman, 2014).

In this interactive, we analyze whether rates of chronic absenteeism provide meaningful differentiation between schools, as required in the statute for the fifth indicator. We find that across the nation and in every state, rates of chronic absenteeism meaningfully differentiate between schools, meaning that rates of chronic absenteeism are widely distributed across schools and the lowest performing schools are clearly identifiable. In each state there are substantial differences across schools in rates of chronic absenteeism. This is particularly consequential for ESSA implementation, as the meaningful differentiation requirement is by state and among schools by grade span within a state.