It's a problem that's both obvious and invisible. You can have all the school improvement plans you want, but students can't learn if they're not in class.
With that in mind, St. Louis Public Radio is starting a project that looks at the impact of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year for any reason — on learning.
While the length of school years varies by district, Missouri law requires a minimum of 174 days. That means a chronically absent student is missing at least three and a half weeks of class time.
Losing that much learning time can derail a student’s academic life. But until recently, the scope of the problem was hidden in plain sight.
For years, districts in Missouri and across the nation used a formula that figured the average daily attendance for an entire building and school district. But the equation had a key flaw: Students with stellar attendance could mask the students missing a lot of school.
Recently, education officials in Missouri started zooming in on individual students under something called 90-90. Under the statewide standard, 90 percent of students must be in class or in a distance-learning program at least 90 percent of the time. Last year 90-90 was rolled into the standards used to determine a district’s accreditation status, accounting for 10 out of a possible 140 points.
State data show that roughly 108,000 students in Missouri missed 10 percent or more of class time last year. Nationally as many as 7.5 million students could be considered chronically absent in a given year. As more and more states shift toward tracking the attendance of individual students, the body of research showing just how bad chronic absenteeism can be for students keeps getting bigger.
Robert Balfanz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, wanted to find the risk factors that can erode the likelihood a student will graduate from high school, especially in parts of the country with high levels of poverty. If administrators knew what to look for, he thought, they could scour data in search of students who would benefit most from an academic intervention or help from social service agencies.
In data set after data set, Balfanz kept finding a common denominator — attendance.
“We’ve put all kinds of investment into improving high poverty schools or getting high poverty kids to do better, and then we often find it doesn’t have the impact we want, which then leads to a frustration and cynicism that nothing works,” Balfanz said. “But what we weren’t factoring in is that many times the very kids we wanted intervention to have an impact on weren’t in school often enough to have any impact. It wasn’t that the intervention didn’t work, the kids weren’t there to get the intervention.”
Like bacteria in a hospital, Balfanz said the effects spread from absent student through the rest of the school.
“It’s this often unseen quiet force that’s impacting all of our positive efforts to get kids to learn, and then it has this ripple effect across the whole school, then it affects behavior in a school, and it creates this downward spiral,” Balfanz said.
Students who get too far behind often act out in class and can find themselves on a fast track to suspensions. Start multiplying the problem, and Balfanz said it leads to an unsafe school environment. That in turn can keep even more students from feeling comfortable in class.
As more states like Missouri begin tracking the attendance of individual students, so does the body of research showing the corrosive nature of lost learning time.
“I would say over the past two years, it’s finally starting to connect for people and more states are trying to find ways to measure it,” Balfanz said.
At the same time, Balfanz said it can often be a heavy lift to get state officials and administrators to look at one of the most basic measures of school accountability in a new way.
“We’re hard-wired to think that if you’re at 90 percent of anything that’s got to be good,” Balfanz said. “But, as it turns out, you can have average daily attendance of 90 percent and actually still have one in five of your kids missing a month of school because it’s different kids on different days who are making up that 90 percent. It gives you a false positive that things are OK when they’re not.”
After studying the problem closely for five years, Balfanz said the reasons for chronic absenteeism run the gamut but typically fall within three categories.
- Students with a hurdle that must be cleared before they can go to class. “I can’t go to school because something is keeping me out,” Balfanz said. “I have to stay home to provide care for my younger sibling, or to provide elder care for the grandmother who raised me, or I have to work to pay the electric bill.”
- Students who are avoiding bullying or feel that the entire school environment is unsafe.
- Students who think that no one will miss them if they don’t show up and don’t realize how being absent can derail their potential.
Emerging research indicates that the problem can be fixed -- and relatively quickly.
In 2010 New York launched a major campaign to identify students slipping into attendance problems and pair them with volunteer mentors and additional resources. Rolled out over time, the initiative started with 25 schools in the first year and 50 schools in the second. Last year 100 schools participated with a total enrollment of more than 60,000 students.
While the results varied, Belfanz found that schools in the pilot program were almost always more successful at reducing chronic absenteeism when compared to schools that did not participate.
Belfanz also found that for many students the academic damage done by chronic absenteeism can be repaired when they show up for school more often. Even kids scoring on the lowest rung of New York’s state testing ladder saw gains in English and mathematics.
“Some people would say, ‘Well, these are kids who are going to struggle any way, even if they come to school they’re not going to do very well.’” Balfanz said. “We were able to show that if you come to school more often, on average, you will do better.”
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