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Battling Chronic Absences: Report Examines States' Prevention Plans

UPDATE

Every year, anywhere from 5 million to 7.5 million students in American schools are missing enough school days that they are considered "academically at risk." Just what counts as "chronic absenteeism" and how are states grappling with this problem?

A new report from Attendance Works, a nonprofit group that studies chronic absences and the best ways for schools to combat them in the name of raising student achievement, aims to answer those questions. Some states face a particularly big challenge—in 2012, Oregon discovered that more than 20 percent of its students were chronically absent.

Here, I'm eager to highlight my colleague Sarah Sparks' outstanding interactive "choose your own adventure" game (although that's really a euphemism) that details how various decisions can influence a closely related issue: how a high school student's decision to drop out can take shape. That interactive feature is part of our 2013 Diplomas Count feature on dropouts, which also highlighted this video of President Barack Obama speaking at an event for the Grad Nation Initiative in 2010, one of many initiatives over the years highlighting the issue:

The group says that nationwide, more than one in 10 students in the K-12 system nationwide miss at least 10 percent of school days in an academic year, whether the absences are excused or not.

So, what does Attendance Works say in "The Attendance Imperative"? First, it provides a list of eight steps state policymakers can take to get a better handle on the problem. It includes adopting a standard definition of chronic absence (ideally, the group says, the 10 percent threshold I mentioned above); regularly reporting absence statistics on a statewide basis for districts, schools, and down to individual grade levels and subgroups; and moving to "urge" districts to report real-time attendance data to families. The report also heavily emphasizes data, and praises states like Connecticut, Georgia, and Utah that have built attendance data into their statewide stat-tracking systems. At the time of the survey last year, 26 states tracked student absences on a daily basis, while 10 tracked absences from individual courses.

California gets praise for building a component for attendance into its school funding formula, while Iowa is highlighted for addressing absenteeism into a policy initiative many might see as unconnected—its push for reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

Where do states and schools get tripped up? One culprit Attendance Works identifies is that relatively high average daily attendance figures can mask concurrently high absentee rates. For example, the report cites six elementary schools in Oakland that each have at least a 95 percent average daily attendance percentage, but where the share of chronically absent students ranges from 7 percent to 16 percent.

UPDATE: When I spoke with Attendance Works' executive director, Hedy Chang, about the report, she said that increasingly, states actually have important attendance data available to them. The broader challenge, she said, is for states to take the next steps to use those data to drive instructional improvements and better achievement. They're learning that such data can reveal patterns to school officials about certain neighborhoods, for example, and are useful to schools and districts beyond ensuring they get their fair share of state funding, Ms. Chang said.

The attendance data, she said, can ultimately provided more information "than we know what to do with."

"States are starting to recognize that it is no longer enough simply to count how many students show up on average for school every day or to concentrate on truancy (unexcused absences)," the report states.

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