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What’s Working: Why Data Matters in the Fight Against Chronic Absence

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

Across the nation, one in seven students is chronically absent, meaning they miss 15 or more days of school out of the year, excused or unexcused. 

While the reasons for absence may vary (ranging from illness to lack of adequate transportation, bullying, or suspensions and expulsions) the results are the same––when students aren’t in school, they miss out on valuable opportunities to grow and learn, leading to negative outcomes in achievement and decreased graduation rates.

For September’s Attendance Awareness month, Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at John’s Hopkins University released the most comprehensive report to date on chronic absence data in schools, Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success

The report offers a broad analysis of national trends and highlights ways in which data can be a crucial tool in reducing rates of chronic absence. Data can help stakeholders assess the size and scope of the problem, determine which students are most affected, and enable districts to design more effective, targeted, and equitable interventions. 

Graphic provided by Attendance Works in collaboration with the Hamilton Project.

Absence and Equity

“Chronic absence data casts a spotlight on where we as a country have failed to provide all students with an equal opportunity to receive a quality education,” said Hedy N. Chang, a co-author of the report and executive director of Attendance Works.

Chronic absence affects every state in the country. But since rates of chronic absence aren’t evenly distributed, data can show where are higher among certain populations or geographic areas. Nationally, rates of chronic absence are higher for low-income students, students with disabilities, students of color, and students experiencing homelessness. 

However, the report also urges stakeholders to prioritize local data in coming up with solutions, rather than generalize based on national trends. For instance, in Alabama and Mississippi, white students are more likely to be chronically absent than African American students, counter to national averages. 

“Such data reveals the critical importance of avoiding making any assumptions and instead using data to understand local realities,” the report says.

To complement the release of the Attendance Works report, the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution developed an interactive map tool that makes it easy for anyone to track chronic absence data for the 2015-2016 school year (both aggregated and across subgroups) at national, state, district, and school levels. 

Data in Action 

Several states and districts have been using chronic absence data to drive positive local change.  For example, the report highlights an effort by E3 Alliance to collect more detailed information in 2013 about spikes in absenteeism among Central Texas students. After determining that a significant cause of absence was flu-related, E3 Alliance and their partners launched a large-scale, school-based “Kick the Flu” immunization campaign that has been named a national model by the CDC. 

In 2016, the campaign provided vaccinations for nearly 40,000 students in elementary and middle schools across 15 school districts in Central Texas. A 2017 evaluation found that Kick the Flu successfully reduced student absences and increased state funding based upon improved attendance.

How Communities Can Help

Data Matters also shows how all members of the community can get involved, highlighting ways that various stakeholders can marshal data to build strong, forward-looking solutions. 

“Everyone using chronic absence data, from administrators to teachers to elected officials and community organizations, needs to make sure that data is used to drive positive problem-solving, and not blame,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

For instance, school leaders can engage students and families in attendance awareness, identify community needs, and provide additional supports to students at risk of chronic absence. District leaders can establish attendance goals, review attendance policies, provide materials and supports for positive engagement, and collaborate with community partners. 

And finally, state education departments can offer guidance and materials on effective strategies, establish professional learning networks, or convene local stakeholders to develop regional solutions. 

“We must all use this new educational metric of chronic absence to interrupt patterns of inequity and improve outcomes for all children, particularly our most vulnerable students who deserve an equal opportunity to learn and thrive,” said Chang. 

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

Join the GradNation Learning Community

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.