An unprecedented look at a hidden educational crisis.
Powered by InformED and the 2013-14 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, too few states report information about chronic absenteeism and, for too long, this crisis in our nation's public elementary and secondary schools has not been fully understood. The release of the Department's 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) marks a turning point in the effort 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 14 percent of the student population—or about 1 in 7 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, the groups with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism — American Indian and Pacific Islander students — are each over 65 percent more likely to lose three weeks of school or more, black students 36 percent more likely, and Hispanic students 11 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 1.2 times less likely to be chronically absent than their non-English learner peers. Eleven percent of English learners are chronically absent compared to 14 percent of non-English learners.
The same is not true for students with disabilities who are almost 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 14 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 2013-14 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, almost 20 percent of students in high school are chronically absent compared to more than 12 percent of students in middle school. The chronic absenteeism rate was the lowest for elementary school students, at 11 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 500 school districts reported that 30 percent or more of their students missed at least three weeks of school in 2013-14.
Chronic absenteeism is widespread—about one out of every seven students missed three weeks or more of school in 2013-14. That translates to approximately 98 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.
Through an array of resources, the Obama administration 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 My Brother's Keeper (MBK) Success Mentors Initiative is the nation's first-ever effort to reach and support more of our nation's highest-need students by scaling an evidence-based, data-driven mentor model through our schools. Over the next three to five years, the initiative aims to reduce chronic absenteeism and drive school success by connecting chronically absent students to caring, trained adults who can serve as mentors.
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.