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Which School Districts Struggle Most With Chronically Absent Students?

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By Lovey Cooper

The vast majority of the nation's school districts struggle with students who are chronically absent, but the problem is especially concentrated in school systems that serve large numbers of poor students, a new analysis of federal data has found. 

While nine out of 10 school districts experience some level of chronic absenteeism, around half of the 6.5 million students who were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year are enrolled in just 4 percent of the nation's districts, according to researchers Robert Balfanz and Hedy N. Chang.

Their analysis—Preventing Missed Opportunitybuilds on nationwide chronic absenteeism data that was released in June by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights, which found that about 13 percent of all U.S. students missed three or more weeks of school in 2013-14. 

At least 89 percent of public schools reported some degree of chronic absenteeism—students who missed three or more weeks of school. But among the 4 percent of districts where the problem was most severe, Balfanz and Chang identified some that are more affluent and suburban. They singled out Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., two large, suburban Washington districts with high overall academic achievement that have experienced a significant influx of low-income students in recent years. Both districts ranked among the top 15 in the nation in the total number of chronically absent students, though their percentages of chronically absent students are near the national average, according to the analysis.

"What's clear from our analysis is that chronic absenteeism follows poverty wherever it is found in significant concentrations," said Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who leads the Everyone Graduates Center, in a press release.

Chronic absence, Chang explained in a phone call with reporters, was defined by the researchers as when students miss so many days of school, for any reason—excused or unexcused—that it directly results in poor student outcomes. Until recently, many districts only measured unexcused absences and average daily attendance. 

"All the best instruction in schools does not make a difference if students are not there to benefit from it," said Chang, the director of Attendance Works who has extensively studied how missing school impacts students.

Chronic absenteeism is an early indicator of all sorts of academic risks, starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, Chang said. In the early grades, students who are chronically absent have lower reading and math achievement. By middle and high school, chronic absence can be used as a clear warning sign for potential dropouts.

Balfanz said that his arm of the research team is most interested in the characteristics of the locations that result in the highest number of instances and percentages of chronic absences. He stresses that the phenomenon of chronic absence is both widespread and highly concentrated.

"You have to hold these two concepts in your mind," he said.

Solving the Problem of Chronic Absenteeism

In June, when the Education Department first released the civil rights data collection, it included the first-ever analysis of attendance in nearly every public school nationwide. It found that for black, Latino, American Indian, and multiracial high school students, roughly 20 percent or more were chronically missing from class. For Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander high school students, 25 percent or more missed at least 15 days of school.

At the high school level, 18 percent of all students and 20 percent of English-language learners are chronically absent, the data showed.

Tackling the problem will take a multi-pronged, tailored approach, Balfanz said.

More affluent school systems could be poised to better combat the issue right away than districts with fewer resources, the researchers suggested. 

In more isolated rural areas, as well as in districts serving disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, intergenerational poverty and a web of challenges that are impediments to students getting to school consistently pose a more daunting challenge for policymakers and education leaders.

"We need a very different set of strategies for these districts," Balfanz said.

Regardless, knowing where this is happening allows policymakers to formulate more individualized community-based, multi-sector approaches, Chang said.

The researchers hope to take advantage of the new federal K-12 law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—as a way to help individual states come up with smaller-scale solutions and ultimately employ chronic absence as a measure of school quality.

Related reading on school attendance and poverty:


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