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Report Finds Correlation Between Chronic Absenteeism, Difficulty Reading

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Chronic absenteeism is a problem for a significant number of early-elementary students in Iowa, and these students are more likely to struggle with reading. Those are two of the key findings of a study conducted by the Iowa-based Child & Family Policy Center.  

"Families will say 'Well, it's just kindergarten, they're little. School attendance isn't as important,'" said Anne Discher, the report's lead author. "But the evidence here is that it's really important because students who are chronically absent in any of the early years of elementary school are much less likely to be proficient in reading by 3rd grade."

Students who miss 10 percent or more of school days are classified as chronically absent. For students in Iowa, that's 18 days or more, which is the equivalent of nearly a month of school.

"We are talking about both excused and unexcused absences because in the early grades the vast majority of absences are excused," said Discher.

Her report, called "School Attendance Patterns in Iowa: Chronic Absence in the Early Grades," analyzed the prevalence of chronic absenteeism among more than 37,000 Iowa students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. They followed the students who entered kindergarten in the 2010-2011 school year through 3rd grade in 2013-2014.

The report found that even schools with average daily attendance rates of 95 percent may have a high number of students who are chronically absent.

"One of those schools had a chronic absence rate of 5 percent," said Discher. "Another had a chronic absence rate of 11 percent, and there was one that had a chronic absence rate of almost 19 percent. So that average daily attendance doesn't tell you everything you need to know around kids in your school or in your district that are missing a lot of school."

Causes of Chronic Absenteeism 

This report was based on attendance data from the Iowa Department of Education, which didn't go into why students were absent. But Discher says national studies have found several reasons for chronic absenteeism.

"Health is one of those issues," said Discher. "A child whose asthma is not well managed may be missing a lot of school. A child whose asthma is managed may not have that issue."

She also cited social problems. For example, a kid who doesn't get along well with his or her peers may suffer from stomachaches that cause several absences from school. Lack of family stability is another cause. Parents without reliable transportation or adequate housing may have trouble making sure their kids attend school regularly.

The report also found that chronic absenteeism was more common among kids of color, those in special education, and those from low-income families.

"Kids on free and reduced price lunch were significantly more likely to be chronically absent," said Discher.

While this report focused on Iowa, chronic absenteeism is a problem throughout the nation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count report on statistics related to kids in the U.S. finds that 19 percent of 4th graders were chronically absent from school in 2013.

Possible Solutions

Discher recommends that all districts and schools report on the percentage of students who are chronically absent, so communities realize the depth of the problem. But, she says, this problem goes beyond schools. A child who is missing a lot of school often comes from a family dealing with serious issues.

"There are really broader strategies around physical and mental health, around family economic stability, around early care and education, and around race equity," said Discher. "They all play into that, so it's really an argument for a broad range of supports for families."


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