Students need to attend school daily to succeed and achieve academically, but when the roll is called in classrooms across the nation, an estimated 5 to 7.5 million students are absent 18 or more days of school each year, or nearly an entire month or more in most districts. In some high-poverty school districts this can climb to more than 1 in 3 students.
Those who miss at least 10 percent of school days in a school year for any reason, excused or unexcused, make up the chronically absent. These are the students the U.S. Education Department and other federal agencies are targeting with the new “Every Student, Every Day” campaign, launched this month by the Obama administration to help school districts identify which children are frequently absent, cut absenteeism by 10 percent a year, and find ways to keep children in school.
Barring illness or an extraordinary event, it’s assumed that all public school students will be in class at school every weekday. For a growing number of the nation’s youngest and oldest students, that’s not the case, said Robert Balfanz, of Johns Hopkins University, a key researcher in the field and the co-author of the report, “Chronic Absenteeism: Summarizing What We Know From Nationally Available Data.” The highest rates of chronic absenteeism are among the youngest and oldest students, with “most regularly in third through fifth grades,” according to Balfanz.
The problem begins in middle school with absenteeism escalating through grade 12, “with seniors often having the highest rate of all.” The students the administration need to reach, Balfanz’s data show, are “concentrated in relatively few schools, with 15 percent of schools in Florida, for example, accounting for at least half of all chronically absent students.”
Impact of Chronic Absenteeism
Parents and educators alike, agree that keeping students in school matters. But when students aren’t in the classroom—for various physical, social, economic, environmental, and health reasons—the academic impact can be detrimental and long lasting. Chronically absent students, for example, are less likely to be able to read at grade level by 3rd grade – a crucial milestone that, if achieved, increases the likelihood that they will ultimately graduate from high school.
Being chronically absent also contributes to overall low academic achievement and is a powerful predictor of those students who may eventually drop out of school. Even missing more than a week of school can have consequences—and be an equity issue—especially for low-income, students of color, students with disabilities, students who are highly mobile, and who are tangled in the juvenile justice system. In other words, those who already face significant challenges and can benefit the most from all that school and an education can offer.
Among the many reasons for students missing school is health—physical, emotional and behavioral—says Libby Nealis, senior program coordinator for Behavioral and Mental Health at NEA Healthy Futures. Students struggling with health issues miss millions of school days each year—asthma alone accounts for 14 million missed school days a year. But ensuring that students have a healthy environment where they can learn and study is also a part of the solution to chronic absenteeism, Nealis added.
For the past two years, NEA Healthy Futures, has been among a group of national education and health leaders working together to develop strategies for engaging the health and public health sectors in efforts to address chronic absenteeism. Their advocacy informed the White House’s “Every Student, Every Day” call to action. The national initiative includes a virtual summit on November 12, that will outline key steps that states, districts and communities can take to improve student achievement by monitoring and reducing chronic absence; a toolkit; and new statistics from the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection.
In Spring 2016, The Education Department will release, for the first time, school-level data on students across the country who missed at least 15 days of school for any reason. The department says the data should help pinpoint where chronic absenteeism is most prevalent and who it affects the most.