Chronic Absenteeism: A Leading Indicator of Student Health and Achievement

December 03, 2014

Chronic absenteeism is a meaningful indicator of student health and achievement for our youngest students all the way up through high school.

It’s as elemental as it gets — keeping kids in the classroom means they have more opportunities to learn. That’s one reason why daily attendance has historically been such an important measure for schools. However, while no one questions this fact, it turns out that measuring kids in class may not be as straightforward as most of us assume.

Most schools track average daily attendance (ADA), which is the percentage of students who show up every day, and more recently there has been a movement to track chronic truancy as well, which is the percentage of students with a specified amount of unexcused absences. While most educators would tell you that these measurements shed light on the attendance crisis in our schools, they still leave gaps large enough for many students to fall through.

What are these gaps? We’re glad you asked.

ADA is about the average, not the student.

While teachers take roll every day, most schools aren’t set up to use this information to monitor individual students, rather it’s used to calculate ADA. The general rule of thumb is that a 95% attendance rate is a passable rate. However, research by Attendance Works, an initiative that promotes awareness of the important role school attendance plays in academic success, shows that even a school with a rate as high as 95% could have up to 30% of its students missing a full month of class each year. ADA does not take this into account.

Chronic truancy captures only part of the story.

Truancy has become more common of a metric since passage of No Child Left Behind. While tracking unexcused absences is important, it ignores excused absences that still lead to missing important instructional time. Whether a student is missing school because of an asthma episode, is dealing with transitional housing issues, or is just playing hookey, the end result is the same: the student is missing out on opportunities to learn.

Whether absences are excused or unexcused, tracking ADA and truancy does not necessarily take into account students’ unique circumstances. As a result, these measurements do not allow schools to develop meaningful strategies or interventions for individual students based on their needs.

Filling in the gaps between ADA and truancy is another metric that is gaining traction — chronic absenteeism, which is commonly defined as missing 10 percent or more of class time. Advocates are working to increase awareness around the negative effects of chronic absenteeism and to develop systems and tools to address it. While the causes of chronic absenteeism are complex and include physical, social and environmental factors, student health issues are a leading contributor.

Chronic absenteeism is a meaningful indicator for our youngest students all the way up through high school. As early as kindergarten, chronic absenteeism can have negative consequences for academic achievement. By third grade, it can be a marker for grade level reading. And by high school, it’s a better dropout indicator than test scores.

At HSC, we see how health and education intersect in this single yet powerful piece of information. That’s why the National Collaborative on Education and Health, which is co-convened by HSC and the Trust for America’s Health, is including chronic absenteeism as an important focus area in 2015. There is a need to develop a model intervention that brings together the health, public health and education sectors to address the needs of students who are chronically absent from school.

Learn more about the work of the Collaborative and efforts being made to better integrate health and education policy. Also check out attendanceworks.org for more information on chronic absenteeism and efforts to address this issue.