Every Student, Every Day in Every State

July 19, 2016

This summer, chronic absenteeism is a very hot topic.

On June 9 and 10, five government agencies worked together to sponsor the Every Student, Every Day National Conference: Eliminating Chronic Absenteeism by Implementing and Strengthening Cross-Sector Systems of Support for All Students. This conference broke new ground in the national conversation on student attendance as 37 states each sent a team of representatives to learn from dozens of experts offering 40 workshops on different approaches to eliminate chronic absenteeism. The Every Student, Every Day (ESED) conference created a vital space for each state team to discuss new data and share information about the trends, challenges, and best practices we have seen in each state as our schools work to improve attendance rates.

This interagency effort was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’ (ED) in collaboration with the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Justice. In other words, this conference was a big deal. The ESED conference also coincided with the first-of-its-kind release of chronic absenteeism data by the Office of Civil Rights, shining a light onto national trends among chronically absent students that have traditionally slipped through the cracks of average daily attendance statistics.

Healthy Schools Campaign had the opportunity to attend the ESED conference as part of the Illinois State Team, all of whom were members of the Illinois Attendance Commission, a new Commission charged with studying the issue of chronic absenteeism in Illinois and making recommendations for strategies to prevent chronic absenteeism. So, what did we learn?

Chronic absenteeism measures more than just attendance. While we already knew that chronic absenteeism is a proven early warning sign of academic risk and school dropout, we learned that chronically absent students are more likely to be behind their peers in other vital measures of development, particularly social emotional learning. Furthermore, according to Attendance Works, chronically absent students are more likely to display behavior and discipline problems and engage in smoking, drug use, and high-risk sexual behaviors.

There is no one size fits all solution to chronic absenteeism. The needs of every community, and therefore every school, are unique. While many schools may see chronic absenteeism among their students, the underlying causes can differ. In order to address chronic absenteeism and offer solutions, it is important to understand the needs of a given community whether they are related to health (traditionally counted as “excused absences”), trusting relationships between school staff and students, or violence prevention. Each community requires a different approach. The good news is that there are many best practices for addressing the different needs within a community. Healthy Schools Campaign’s chronic absenteeism toolkit highlights a number of different strategies communities can use to address the different health-related causes of chronic absenteeism and there are many other resources available through Attendance Works which highlight additional proven strategies.

We need (more) big data on chronic absenteeism. Good data allows state education agencies and school districts to create appropriate policy solutions that tackle chronic absenteeism. However, Illinois is one of several of states that do not yet systematically collect data on chronic absenteeism, putting Illinois behind other states’ efforts. Illinois is one of many states that does not even have an agreed-upon definition of chronic absenteeism. The Illinois Attendance Commission is currently working to define chronic absenteeism in the state. In the meantime, the Illinois State Board of Education collects statewide data on average daily attendance (ADA). ADA does not track the attendance of individual students and that mean that at-risk students are slipping through the cracks of our current data system. What additional data school districts collect—and how they act on it—varies from district to district. On the other end of the spectrum, we know states that define chronic absenteeism as missing ten percent or more of school days and have a strong, statewide longitudinal data system are making significant gains in reducing chronic absenteeism. For example, Colorado does an excellent job of collecting data, analyzing it, and addressing the root causes of chronic absenteeism. As a result, Colorado students are succeeding academically like never before.

The ESED conference showed the Illinois Attendance Commission what is possible when it comes to addressing chronic absenteeism and, by extension, student success. This summer, the Commission will debrief what they learned at the conference and discuss what practices are appropriate for Illinois.

The next Illinois Attendance Commission meeting will be taking place on July 28, 2016 and will be open to the public at the Illinois State Board of Education offices in both Chicago and Springfield. If you plan to give testimony on chronic absenteeism at that meeting, Healthy Schools Campaign will see you there!