Data & Analytics

Data Can Help Schools Confront 'Chronic Absence'

Half of "chronically absent" students are found in just four percent of the country's school districts. Thirty districts in Texas and California alone account for 10 percent of the country's total chronically absent kids. About 500 districts have chronic absenteeism that surpasses 30 percent — more than twice the national average.

The data cited here isn't new. It was shared in June by the Office for Civil Rights, which compiled it from a 2013-2014 survey completed by nearly every school district and school in the United States. What is new is a report from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center that encourages schools and districts to use their own data to pinpoint ways to take on the challenge of chronic absenteeism. Both of those organizations promote improvements in school practices that will lead to higher graduation rates.

"Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence" offers the generally accepted definition of chronic absence as missing 15 days for any reason. However, the report's authors  also suggested that it be defined as "missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason," whether the absence is excused, unexcused or due to suspensions. The "10 percent definition," as the report explained, is based on three drivers. The first is research that shows that missing that much school is correlated with "lower academic performance and dropping out." Second, it also helps in identifying students earlier in the semester in order to get a jump on possible interventions. Third, it enables school leaders to detect "attendance problems" among the highly mobile student population, which may never accumulate 15 or more days of absence in any given school or district.

The report offers a six-step process for using data tied to chronic absence in order to reduce the problem.

The first step is investing in "consistent and accurate data." That's where the definition comes in — to make sure people have a "clear understanding" and so that it can be used "across states and districts" with school years that vary in length. The same step also requires "clarifying what counts as a day of attendance or absence." Maryland, for example, counts a student as being present for a full day after being in school for four hours; in California students are often considered present for the day after just one period. The final aspects of the first step in the process are to develop a standard protocol for collecting the attendance data and to create a system for assessing data accuracy. The student information system can come in useful for this last necessity, as long as a student isn't "marked 'present' by default."

The second step is to use the data to understand what the need is and who needs support in getting to school. This phase could involve defining multiple tiers of chronic absenteeism (at-risk, moderate or severe), and then analyzing the data to see if there are differences by student sub-population — grade, ethnicity, special education, gender, free and reduced price lunch, neighborhood or other criteria that require special kinds of intervention.

Step three asks schools and districts to use the data to identify places getting good results. By comparing chronic absence rates across the district or against schools with similar demographics, the "positive outliers" may surface, showing people that the problem isn't unstoppable but something that can be addressed for the better.

Sharing the data with "key stakeholders" is the fourth step. The idea is to position the students and their families, teachers and counselors, school and district leaders, the state department of education and others to take the right actions based on the data. For example, by alerting families to buildup of absences, they may be able to offer insights about possible solutions; similarly, principals are in a position to identify when "programmatic or policy changes are needed.

Steps five and six call on schools and districts to help people understand why the absences are happening, develop ways to address the problem (such as some Arkansas districts' use of home visits and "attendance buddies") and make sure there's shared accountability.

The report links to free data tools on the Attendance Works website, including a calculator for tallying chronic absences and guidance on how to protect student privacy when sharing data.

"The good news," the report concluded, "is a growing number of communities have shown that chronic absence is not inevitable. These success stories prove that improving attendance is possible, even in the most challenged communities." The key is to use real-time data "to monitor when absences are adding up, and working together to address challenges to getting to school before students have lost too much time in the classroom. While solutions always will need to be tailored to local realities, much has already been learned about what works to reduce chronic absence."

The full report is freely available on the Attendance Works website.

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