It is the most obvious and important contributor to student success and yet something many California school districts are not doing well: getting students to show up for school.
More than 1 in 10 students statewide were chronically absent from school in 2017-18, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the school year, according to recent data released by the California Department of Education.
“The numbers are bad and getting slightly worse,” said Rob Manwaring, a senior education policy adviser for Children Now, a statewide child advocacy organization. He is referring to the fact that the statewide rate rose to 11.1 percent from 10.8 percent in 2016-17, the first year the state released the numbers.
Chronic absenteeism is “where the school to prison pipeline starts,” Manwaring said. “It’s where you can address a problem before it becomes a crisis.”
While Manwaring and other advocates have long pushed for more attention to the issue, there is greater urgency this year as the state for the first time has set chronic absenteeism as one of the indicators districts will be rated on to gauge how successfully they are serving their students. There is also hope that it will be among the focal points of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s vision for a “cradle-to-career” education system.
Missing as much as 10 percent of the school year, or approximately 18 days, can have adverse consequences for a child as early as kindergarten. A significant body of research shows students with high rates of absenteeism are less likely to be able to read at grade level by the end of the third grade, are more likely to drop out in high school and are less successful in college.
In California, rates for several racial and ethnic student groups — including Native Americans, African-Americans and Pacific Islanders — were significantly higher than the statewide rate. Meanwhile, rates for Latinos, whites, Asians and Filipinos were just above or below the state average.
“The group that jumped out to me as the biggest concern is African-Americans,” Manwaring said, referring both to their large numbers in many districts and high absenteeism rates. “One out of every five African-American kids is chronically absent. That is scary.”
Manwaring said the picture becomes even bleaker when you dig deeper into the data and see the rates for other subgroups, including foster youth, homeless youth and students with disabilities:
- Foster youth — 26 percent
- Homeless youth — 23 percent
- Student with disabilities — 18.4 percent
- Low-income students — 13.9 percent
State officials and advocates expect districts to start working harder to bring the numbers down now that chronic absenteeism in grades K-8 is a statewide indicator on the California School Dashboard, the state’s color-coded report card for districts and individual schools.
As with other dashboard indicators (like test scores and suspension rates) districts and schools are assigned a color based on their absenteeism rates. Orange and red mean “high” or “very high” rates, respectively.
A district or school has high chronic absenteeism if between 10 and 20 percent of its students miss 18 or more days, under the criteria approved late last year by the State Board of Education. The state considers very high rates to be 20 percent or more.
Based on these breakdowns, approximately 30 percent of districts have high absenteeism rates through the eighth grade and an additional 10 percent have very high rates. Considerably more districts would have high and very high rates if high schools were included in the dashboard tally.
The State Board of Education excluded high schools because graduation rates are already one of the main statewide indicators and board members felt that since attendance factors heavily into graduation rates it would be redundant to also include absenteeism for high schools. This decision has drawn criticism from youth advocates, who point to the fact that high school students are significantly more likely to be chronically absent than students in lower grades.
This argument aside, state officials and youth advocates agree that from now on districts will be paying more attention to their absenteeism rates at all grade levels because they are a key part of the dashboard.
“With the dashboard going public we’ll have a lot of supervisors of attendance motivated to change” the color they receive on the dashboard, said David Kopperud, chairman of the state School Attendance Review Board. “It’s a wake-up call.”
In addition to maintaining accurate attendance records, a district’s supervisor of attendance is also responsible for developing programs that incentivize students to come to school, working with the parents of students who are chronically absent to improve their attendance and, in extreme cases, reporting chronically absent students to their local attendance review board.
Kopperud said beyond the dashboard there are a couple of statewide model programs designed to help districts lower their chronic absenteeism numbers. One is an effort to promote improved training for attendance supervisors so they can better address the myriad factors that contribute to chronic absenteeism, he said. All districts with at least 1,000 students are required to employ an attendance supervisor.
Another is a model attendance recognition program for schools that replaces schools’ “perfect attendance” awards with incentives that will also motivate students who’ve had poor attendance. In one such program schools identify days throughout the year in which all students who show up to school receive an award, but students don’t know which days will be attendance award days, Kopperud said.
But both Kopperud and the advocates are quick to acknowledge that combating chronic absenteeism requires much more than trained attendance supervisors and revamped awards.
“I know improvements can be made, the question is how fast,” said Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of San Francisco-based Attendance Works, which is among the leading advocates nationwide for improving school attendance. “It can’t be done in the same way as ‘Thou shalt not suspend kids.’”
Chang is referring to a state law passed in 2014 that banned suspensions in grades K-3 for behaviors that are deemed disruptive or defiant, but not dangerous. As a result of the new law, and policy changes by districts, suspensions have dropped significantly statewide over the past half-decade.
Absenteeism requires a broader, multi-dimensional approach. Districts must take into account not only the students themselves but also where they live, their family’s cultural history and opinion toward school and the trauma they’ve experienced.
“It may take a few years” for the numbers to improve, Manwaring said. “My hope for this year is districts feel some urgency to address it and start to figure out what is going wrong and what can be done about it.”