WASHINGTON — It’s a challenge to teach children who aren’t in class — and new government numbers show about 6.5 million students were absent for at least three weeks of the school year.
The figures are the first-ever look at chronic absenteeism from the Education Department. Overall, 13 percent of students nationwide were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year.
The data released Tuesday also suggest sharp disparities between how black and white students are disciplined in school as well as the types of advanced coursework offered in high school to black and Latino children.
“A systemic failure to educate some groups of children as well as others tears at the moral fabric of the nation,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr., said in a phone call with reporters. “What sets the U.S. apart from any other country is the idea that opportunity is universal. These data show that we still fall far short of that ideal.”
Here’s a look at the numbers from the Civil Rights Data Collection, a biannual survey of all public schools and districts in the country, covering more than 95,000 public schools and 50 million students.
More than 3 million high school students were chronically absent — nearly 1 in 5 high school students.
The department defines chronically absent as missing 15 or more days during the school year, a pattern that increases a student’s chances of falling behind and dropping out of school.
In elementary school, American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students were twice as likely to be chronically absent as white students. Black students were 1.4 times as likely to be chronically absent as their white counterparts.
The Obama administration began a program last fall called Every Student, Every Day. It partners with states and local groups in 30 communities identify mentors to help chronically absent kids get back on track.
Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to get one or more out-of-school suspensions as their white counterparts, the report said. Black children represent 19 percent of preschoolers, yet they account for 47 percent of pre-school kids getting suspended. The comparison to white students: they make up 41 percent of preschoolers, but represent only 28 percent of pre-school children with suspensions.
“These disparities beg for more districts to follow the lead of places like Baltimore and Chicago, which are dramatically limiting the use of suspensions in early grades,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights.
One big positive in the report was a sharp drop in overall suspensions.
Across the country, 2.8 million K-12 students received one or more out-of-school suspensions — a nearly 20 percent drop from the number reported two years ago.
“A 20 percent reduction, overall, in suspensions is breathtaking,” said Lhamon. That’s a “tremendous testament to our educators’ commitment to making sure the students are in school and can learn.”
Nationwide, almost half of high schools offered classes in calculus, and more than three-quarters offered Algebra II. But black and Latino students didn’t have the same access to high-level math and science as other students.
According to the report, 33 percent of high schools with substantial black and Latino enrollment offered calculus. That compares to 56 percent of high schools with low numbers black and Latino children that offered calculus. Similar gaps were seen for physics, chemistry and Algebra II.
Inequities were seen in Advanced Placement courses, too. While black and Latino students made up 38 percent of students in schools that offer AP courses, only 29 percent of them were enrolled in at least one AP course.
Associated Press writer Mark S. Smith contributed to this report.