A hidden educational crisis.
Powered by InformED and the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection.
Education can only fulfill its promise as the great equalizer—a force that can overcome differences in privilege and background—when we work to ensure that students are in school every day and receive the supports they need to learn and thrive.
At the same time, we know that many students experience tremendous adversity in their lives—including poverty, health challenges, community violence, and difficult family circumstances—that make it difficult for them to take advantage of the opportunity to learn at school.
Students who are chronically absent—meaning they miss at least 15 days of school in a year—are at serious risk of falling behind in school. Yet, for too long, this crisis in our nation's public elementary and secondary schools has not been fully understood. Now, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, many states are reporting chronic absenteeism data annually. This data story, updated with the 2015–16 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), bolsters efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate chronic absenteeism so that all students have a better chance of reaching their full potential. The data from the CRCD is drawn from nearly every public school in the country and helps us understand who is chronically absent, at what grade levels chronic absenteeism tends to occur, and how chronic absenteeism compares community-by-community and state-by-state.
That's 16 percent of the student population—or about 1 in 6 students.
Let's take a closer look at which groups of students were more likely to be chronically absent. Disparities in chronic absenteeism by key demographic characteristics are evident, though unacceptable levels of chronic absenteeism exist for all students.
The disparities are striking. Consider the relative differences: compared to their white peers, American Indian and Pacific Islander students are over 50 percent more likely to lose three weeks of school or more, black students 40 percent more likely, and Hispanic students 17 percent more likely.
See chronic absenteeism rates for other student groups in the next chart.
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One notable trend: English learners, who face significant barriers in school and society, are approximately 1.2 times less likely to be chronically absent than their non-English learner peers. Fourteen percent of English learners are chronically absent compared to 16 percent of non-English learners.
The same is not true for students with disabilities who are 1.5 times more likely to be chronically absent than students without disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is intended to ensure all students with disabilities have access to a free, appropriate education yet chronic absenteeism is a barrier that gets in the way of achieving that goal.
At roughly 16 percent each, male and female students are similarly likely to be chronically absent.
Chronic absenteeism occurs at every grade level but is more prevalent in some grades than others. Chronic absenteeism rates are highest in high school, according to data in the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection. Other research suggests that students in the early elementary grades also experience high rates of chronic absenteeism, which may be masked in analyses that are only available at the school level (as is the case here). Understanding when students are most at risk will help schools and advocates better target interventions to improve student outcomes.
Overall, more than 20 percent of students in high school are chronically absent compared with more than 14 percent of students in middle school. The chronic absenteeism rate was the lowest for elementary school students, at almost 14 percent. For more information on how we defined grade levels, see the data notes.
Next, we looked at how chronic absenteeism varied across grade levels for specific groups of students.
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For each subgroup of students there is a similar pattern: the likelihood of chronic absenteeism increases as students progress into high school. Notably, the stronger overall attendance observed among English learners dissipates over grade levels, such that they experience higher chronic absenteeism than their non-English learner peers when they reach high school.
Students experience chronic absenteeism from coast to coast. Disturbingly, approximately 800 school districts reported that more than 30 percent of their students missed at least three weeks of school in 2015-16.
Chronic absenteeism is widespread—about one out of every six students missed three weeks or more of school in 2015-16. That translates to more than 100 million school days lost. Research suggests the reasons for chronic absenteeism are as varied as the challenges our students and families face—including poor health, limited transportation, and a lack of safety — which can be particularly acute in disadvantaged communities and areas of poverty.
Whatever its causes, chronic absenteeism can be devastating:
Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the third grade. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.
A study of public school students in Utah found that an incidence of chronic absenteeism in even a single year between 8th and 12th grade was associated with a seven-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out.
High school dropout, which chronically absent students are more likely to experience, has been linked to poor outcomes later in life, from poverty and diminished health to involvement in the criminal justice system.
The very students who tend to face significant challenges and need the most educational supports are often missing the most school.
When our teachers, principals, policymakers, and others have access to robust data on the extent and nature of chronic absenteeism, we are all in a better position to provide students with the supports they need to stem this crisis in our schools.
The 2015 federal education law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) empowered states to create unique statewide accountability systems. In addition to measurements of annual school performance, ESSA requires states to hold schools accountable for one measure of "school quality or student success (SQSS)" (ESSA 2015, 111-31) and 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education to use chronic absenteeism as one SQSS indicator. ESSA state plans outline strategies to leverage federal funds to improve attendance through teacher training, improving health services, family engagement, and school climate, important levers for increasing school attendance.
Through an array of resources, the Department of Education is committed to helping ensure all our students, especially the most disadvantaged, are in school every day, including:
Supports coordinated community action that addresses the underlying causes of local chronic absenteeism affecting millions of children in our nation's public schools each year.
The CRDC shines a spotlight on data that enable us to understand the successes and challenges of schools and school districts in providing educational opportunity to all of our nation's children.