The Effects of Chronic Absenteeism on Learning and Equity

Chronic absenteeism results in lost opportunities to learn, affecting achievement for the absent student and disrupting learning for the entire class. Learn the effects of chronic absenteeism on learning and equity in schools—and five strategies to reduce it.

Topics: Innovation

Every day a student is absent is a lost opportunity for learning. Too many absences not only can affect achievement for the absent student but also can disrupt learning for the entire class.

Inequities in Absenteeism

While no absence is beneficial to student learning, excused absences will always happen, and if there aren’t too many of them, students can stay caught up on learning. But marking an absence “unexcused” might deepen education inequities and interfere with efforts to improve attendance by affecting how students and their families are treated, according to a new report from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).

The report, “Examining Disparities in Unexcused Absences Across California Schools” outlines how labeling absences unexcused can lead to punitive responses such as denied credit, exclusion from extracurricular activities, and fines or court. Such responses are unlikely to improve attendance when the absences occur for reasons outside student and family control, because they undermine efforts to identify underlying challenges.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are much more likely to have their absences labeled unexcused in California, according to the report, and Black, Native American, Latinx, and Pacific Islander students’ absences seem to attract the unexcused label more often than those of white, Asian American, and Filipino students.

The report recommends that schools and districts:

  • Take action to address disparities in the coding of absences;
  • Use data to learn where disparities are most problematic and identify “bright spot” schools and districts that have better attendance and fewer inequities in unexcused labeling;
  • Invest in practices and data systems for monitoring and understanding reasons for excused and unexcused absences;
  • Review and update local and state policies related to unexcused absences;
  • Assess and improve how attendance practices and policies are communicated to students and families; and
  • Invest in professional development to improve attendance and truancy practice.

Strategies to Reduce Absenteeism

Despite the report focusing on California schools, the takeaways remain relevant for schools across the country. Attendance Works, a nonprofit that promotes equal opportunities to learn and advances student success by reducing chronic absences, outlines five strategies school sites can implement to reduce chronic absenteeism and keep kids in the classroom:

  1. Engage students and parents. Develop a schoolwide culture that promotes a sense of safety, respect, and personal responsibility in which students feel connected and know that someone notices, in a caring manner, when they miss school. Help families understand the negative effects of chronic absenteeism.
  2. Recognize good and improved attendance. The goal is not to focus on perfect attendance. Simple rewards—recognition from peers and the school through certificates or assemblies, extra recess time, homework passes—go a long way toward motivating students.
  3. Monitor attendance data and practice. Use attendance data already collected by schools to examine which and how many students are missing 10 percent or more of the school year. Ideally, you can monitor trends over time by grade and subgroup.
  4. Provide personalized early outreach. Perhaps the most critical strategy in using data is to trigger early, caring outreach to families of students who are already missing too many days of school. Such outreach is essential for identifying barriers to attendance—hunger, access to health care, homelessness, transportation, or other challenges—and the supports or resources that would help improve attendance.
  5. Develop programmatic responses to barriers. Identifying barriers to attendance can indicate appropriate solutions, which might include improved access to health care, “walking school buses,” tutoring, mentoring, morning or afterschool care, and other approaches.

Learn more from the PACE report and Attendance Works.