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Chronic Absenteeism Could Be Low-Hanging Fruit for ESSA Indicator

AbsenteeismHamilton.JPGAs states and districts debate potential new indicators for school accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act, chronic absenteeism may prove an easy leverage point.

ESSA calls for states to adopt another indicator for school accountability, in addition to students' academic achievement in math and language arts. The law requires the new indicator to allow districts to identify meaningful differences between high- and low-performing schools, and be scientifically valid, reliable, and comparable statewide. 

In a new policy analysis by the Brookings Institute's Hamilton Project, researchers Lauren Bauer, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Megan Mumford analyzed the most recent federal civil rights data, from 2013-14, on the percentage of students who missed 15 days of school or more in a single year. Only 8.5 percent of public schools that year had no chronic absenteeism at all, but rates varied significantly among states and by grade span. (You can explore the state-by-state interactive here.)

The researchers found that in New York City, schools with chronic absenteeism rates in the lowest 20 percent had twice as many students meet English and math proficiency on state tests as schools with the highest 20 percent of absenteeism rates in the city. Schools with low absenteeism also had higher student-reported levels of school climate than students in schools with high absenteeism.

Absenteeism Versus School Climate in ESSA

That makes sense, considering other studies have found that students who feel their school is unwelcoming or unsafe are more likely to miss school, but Bauer and her colleagues argued that tracking chronic absenteeism would be a clearer and more valid measure for accountability than other school climate indicators. That's both because the self-reported surveys generally used to measure climate can be vulnerable to bias, and because there is often a smaller range of responses within schools. 

"There's a high floor and a low ceiling for [school climate]; 90 percent of New York City Schools have a school climate score of 80 percent or more [out of 100]. There's not a lot of room for improvement there," said Bauer, a visiting fellow at the Hamilton Project. "We think school absenteeism is the least problematic of these measures to attach accountability stakes to. If students aren't feeling safe at school, the incentive to reduce absenteeism rates motivates districts and schools to improve school climate."

Chart: A Hamilton Project policy study using federal civil rights data finds that chronic absenteeism among states varies significantly by grade span. Elementary school absenteeism is higher in Northwestern states, for example. Source: The Hamilton Project

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