Absences hinder students' success

As California strives to hold its public schools accountable for teaching all children, the state is missing a crucial piece of data: a snapshot of how many children chronically miss class.

It's not that teachers aren't taking attendance. They do that every day, because state funding depends on how many students show up.

And it's not that schools aren't tracking down truants. Compulsory education requires monitoring unexcused absences.

What California doesn't do in a systematic way is pay attention when students miss extended periods of school because of excused, as well as unexcused, absences.

National research shows that every year, one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students misses at least a month of school. In other words, they are chronically absent. These children aren't truants, because most 5- and 6-year-olds don't stay home without the knowledge of an adult who can call in an excuse. But they are missing school nonetheless.

The effects are profound: Our research shows that students who miss a month or more of kindergarten are more likely to perform poorly in first grade, an effect particularly pronounced in reading among Latino children. Among children living in poverty, chronic absence in kindergarten predicts low academic achievement in fifth grade. By sixth grade, a pattern of absence is a sure-fire predictor of high school dropout rates. The classmates of frequent absentees also can be adversely affected, because teachers have to spend time reviewing work for the students who missed class rather than presenting new material.

Chronic absence can be a key indicator that a student — or a school — is headed for trouble. Schools that track chronic absence data find that they can intervene to turn around the problem. But most school districts in California don't keep track, and neither does the state.

California is one of only 13 states that did not include attendance in its formula for assessing whether schools are making adequate progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. The state Department of Education does not require school districts to track chronic absence, and the information is not part of the elaborate, longitudinal California database that will follow students throughout their academic careers. But knowing about attendance, not just test scores, is essential to ensuring that children do well in school.

Analyzing attendance patterns can give clues not just about individual students but about how schools and neighborhoods are functioning. And analysis can point to solutions.

Let's say data show that many absentee students come from a single neighborhood. This should suggest an inquiry into whether students from the area have reliable transportation or safe walking routes. If chronic illness is keeping some students home, a school nurse or nearby clinic might be enlisted to help with preventive care.

If the problem is parents simply not understanding the importance of attendance in the early grades, then education programs for parents are important, along with incentives for children to achieve improved attendance. If many frequently absent children never attended preschool, the school knows it needs to promote early childhood programs more effectively to smooth the transition into elementary school. Or if the absentee students are concentrated in a single class, a principal should see that the teacher gets support in reworking the curriculum.

Schools and communities can't develop solutions without data.

The state Board of Education recently discussed tapping federal money to help schools track this important indicator. The Obama administration's Race to the Top education grant program is offering $4.3 billion to districts with an emphasis on data-driven solutions.

Including chronic absence in the grant request could provide the money needed for school districts to share their attendance data with the state, so it could be included in the longitudinal database along with student test scores and other key indicators. The state could analyze the data and help school districts develop the best approaches to resolving the problem.

Ultimately, addressing chronic absence will take more than data analysis. It will require time and commitment from educators, parents and the community. It takes a recognition that poor attendance is often tangled in the web of problems afflicting children who live in poverty. But as we push to improve student progress and fix failing schools, we first need to know whether the students are coming to class.

Chang directs the Chronic Absence Project, funded with grants from the California Endowment and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Flores is a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and a senior associate at the Chronic Absence Project.