New report shows up to 7.5 million students miss a month of school each year

Chronic absenteeism in American schools is a largely unnoticed and unmeasured problem affecting the educational outcomes of millions of students and undermining critical school improvement efforts, according to The Importance of Being in School, a new report by Johns Hopkins University School of Education researcher Dr. Robert Balfanz. Conducted with support from the Get Schooled Foundation, the report was released May 17 at a congressional briefing and at Education Writers Association’s national conference. 

The report found only a handful of states measure and report on chronic absenteeism, which the report defines as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a given year, or about 18 days. It estimates that 10 to 15 percent of students nationwide are chronically absent. That adds up to 5 million to 7.5 million students who miss enough school to be at severe risk of dropping out or failing to graduate from high school.

“Because we don’t measure or monitor the problem, we generally don’t act on it,” said Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins. “Left untreated, the problem will likely worsen achievement gaps between rich districts and poor districts and curtail the positive effects of promising current and future reforms.”

The data problem is structural and runs from the school to the state to the federal level. At the school level, chronic absenteeism is largely masked by daily attendance rates. A school can report a 90 percent average daily attendance rate and have 40 percent of students chronically  absent, because on different days different students make up the 90 percent. Schools know that students are missing but don’t look at the data by student to show individual absenteeism rates.

The findings are sobering:

  • Students who are chronically absent in one year will likely be so in subsequent years and may miss more than half a year of school over four or five years.
  • Urban schools often have chronic absentee rates as high as one third of students, while poor rural areas are in the 25 percent range.
  • While the problem affects youth of all backgrounds, children in poverty are more likely to be chronically absent. In Maryland, chronic absentee rates for poor students were more than 30 percent, compared to less than 12 percent for students from more affluent families.
  • Chronically absent students tended to be concentrated in a relatively small number of schools. In Florida, 52 percent of chronically absent students were in just 15 percent of schools.  
  • In some school districts, kindergarten absenteeism rates are nearly as high as those in high school.

The magnitude of the problem is likely understated as Balfanz and his researchers could find chronic absenteeism reported for only six states: Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island. Several states, including California and New York, do not even collect the individual data needed to calculate chronic absenteeism.

The impact of these missed days is dramatic – students are less likely to score well on achievement tests and less likely to graduate. Students who miss 10 percent of school days on average score in the 30th percentile on standardized reading and math tests, compared to those with zero absences, scoring in the 50th percentile.

Looking at data from multiple states and school districts, the researchers found that consistently high chronic absenteeism was the strongest predictor of dropping out of high school, stronger even than course failures, suspension or test scores. Data from Georgia showed a very strong relationship between attendance in grades 8-10 and graduation. There was as much as a 50 percentage-point difference in graduation rates for students who missed five or fewer days compared to those who missed 15 or more days.

These findings have been extrapolated into a user-friendly attendance calculator that allows users to see a personalized view of the impact of missed days on the likelihood of graduating and on math and reading achievement tests.

“Dr. Balfanz’s research shows that we must address the attendance problem if we are going to have the kind of broader school improvement we want and our students deserve,” said Marie Groark, executive director of Get Schooled. “The good news is that many of us are working in innovative ways to get the simple message of missing matters to parents and students.”

The report did find signs of hope, including examples of schools and districts making substantial improvements in addressing absenteeism and attendance problems.  Among others, Get Schooled’s Attendance Challenge, a friendly national competition designed to motivate students to attend school, has seen strong results. Most recently, Lincoln High School (Warren, MI), bested other Detroit-area high schools when it raised its attendance by more than 8 percent over three months.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement has significantly reduced chronic absenteeism in 50 schools participating in the pilot project. Students in these schools, paired with Success Mentors, racked up an additional 7,000 days in class last year.

The report recommends that chronic absenteeism (not just daily attendance rates) be included in the annual Department of Education Office of Civil Rights School Survey and in state accountability indexes. It also called for early warning and intervention systems and community-wide attendance improvement efforts to spread broadly across the nation. 

Get Schooled, an Alliance partner, is a non-profit organization dedicated to using media, technology, and popular culture to improve attendance.  Get Schooled connects with young Americans through its combination of on-air programming, online content, on-the ground events and school-based initiatives.  Together with hundreds of schools, educators, and students, and boosted by partners like Viacom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Get Schooled motivates and empowers students to make high school education a priority and college education a possibility.

The Everyone Graduates Center, an Alliance partner, is part of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Its mission is to identify the barriers that stand in the way of all students graduating from high school prepared for adult success, to develop strategic solutions to overcome those barriers and to build local capacity to implement and sustain the solutions.