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Chronic Absenteeism — Not a ‘Casual Decision’

While attendance remains somewhat consistent between third and fifth grade, chronic absenteeism climbs in middle school and peaks by the twelfth grade. (Courtesy Get Schooled/The Johns Hopkins University)

There’s an assumption that in order to do well in school, you have to be in school. But new data suggests that 5 to 7.5 million students, especially from low-income areas, are missing more than one month of school a year.

The new report by the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education finds that on average, 10 to 15 percent of students in America are chronically absent from school.

Currently, only six states across the country are measuring chronic absenteeism – Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island — and each are doing it in different ways.

Across Maryland’s 58 elementary schools alone, more than 50 students missed more than one month of school and 250 students missed more than a month in 61 high schools during the 2010 to 2011 school year.

Missing school isn’t a “casual decision,” reminds Marie Groark, the executive of the Get Schooled Foundation, which co-sponsored the report. For many students, going to school comes down to a tradeoff: attend class or take care of responsibilities at home.

Inconsistent living situations due to homelessness, foster care, inability to pay rent or home foreclosures, also contribute to sporadic attendance. Students, especially young girls, are often obligated to care for younger siblings during school hours.

“What often happens to young people is when they start missing school…first it can become a habit,” Groark said. “You miss one day, two days and it’s something that seems to start to spiral. Then you come back to school and you find yourself unable to keep up with the work.”

Interactive: Chart how chronic absenteeism adds up on Get Schooled’s calculator

Fixing the problem can be difficult, especially when the extent of chronic absenteeism is not well documented, if at all.

Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10% of school in a year, is not a statistic schools are required to report. Instead, schools watch daily attendance or truancy, which is necessary for federal accountability under No Child Left Behind.

The problem, however, is daily attendance doesn’t capture the whole picture: daily attendance measures how many total students are in school on a given day, whereas chronic absenteeism measures how many of the same students attend school across many days.

In other words, “a school can have average daily attendance of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent, because on different days, different students make up that 90 percent.”

Consequences of chronic absenteeism (Courtesy Get Schooled/The Johns Hopkins University)

“The issue is understanding the scope of the problem and understanding the consequence. For policymakers, the call to action is doing a better job of monitoring the problem and parents must do a better job of getting their kids to school every day,” Groark said.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.

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