Exploring the effects of student absenteeism

With the great majority of states choosing some measurement of school attendance as their so-called “fifth metric” required by the Every School Succeeds Act,1 researchers, policymakers, and advocates are questioning how useful these metrics are at informing us about student achievement and education equity, as well as guiding policy. Indeed, while research has linked missing school to elevated risk of dropping out and poorer graduation rates, policymakers and researchers should further explore the importance of missing school, and about factors driving student absenteeism, and how to reduce it.

Our recently released report, Student absenteeism:Who misses school and how missing school matters for performance, examines how much school students are missing, which groups of students are missing the most school, and how bad missing school is for performance. We learned that about one in five students—19.2 percent—missed three or more days of school in the month before they took the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment. Students who have been diagnosed with a disability, Hispanic-English language learners, Native Americans, and students who are eligible for free lunch, were the most likely to miss school, while Asian students were rarely absent. Our findings also confirmed that missing school negatively effects performance, even after accounting for student and school characteristics (including gender, race/ethnicity, language status, disability status, income, and school socioeconomic characteristics). Even students with only occasional absences were negatively affected. For these students, relative to those who did not miss school, absenteeism makes a moderate dent in their performance (a tenth of a standard deviation), but the decline in performance becomes more troubling as the number of missed days increases (up to about two-thirds of a standard deviation for those missing more than 10 school days).

Unfortunately, our findings mirror those of many other studies in terms of the groups that face particular disadvantage. Over a quarter of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), and nearly as many—23.2 percent—of students eligible for free lunch missed three or more school days (compared with 18.3 percent of non-IEP students and 15.4 percent of students who are ineligible for meal subsidies). Both low-income and IEP students are also more than twice as likely as their non-poor and non-IEP peers to be absent from school for more than 10 days, i.e. to miss about half of their days.

These findings extend to race, ethnicity, and language status as well. Hispanic-English Language Learners (ELL) and Native American students were the most likely to miss 3 or more days of school (24.1 and 24.0 percent respectively), while only about 9 percent of Asian-non-ELL students did. Hispanic-ELL students and Asian-ELL students are the most likely to miss more than 10 school days per month: 3.9 percent and 3.2 percent respectively did so (compared with their non-ELL counterparts: non-ELL Hispanic: 1.6 percent, non-ELL Asian: 0.1 percent).

There is also some good news. On average, children missed fewer days of school in 2015 than in 2003. The share of students who missed more than three days of school declined 3 percentage points between 2003 and 2015. This reduction was distributed about evenly across the shares of students missing 3–4, 5–10, and more than 10 days of school, with very stable patterns for those with occasional absences. (We did not find significant differences by grade or by subject, nor did we find substantial variation over time across states.)

As noted above, and as expected, our analysis confirms that missing school hurts student performance: on average, students who missed school three or more days in the month before being tested scored between 0.3 and 0.6 standard deviations lower (depending on the number of days missed) on the NAEP test than those who did not miss any school. Also as expected, the more school days students miss, the wider the gap relative to those who did not miss school.

Whether these numbers reflect pure causality or whether absenteeism is mainly a mediating factor accounting for the influence of other drivers of performance (such as chronic illness, extensive family responsibilities, or inadequate supports), the findings affirm the potential associated with broadening accountability frameworks to include nonacademic metrics—such as student absenteeism and others—that matter for student performance, school climate and policy guidance. Using student absenteeism metrics to explore the characteristics of students who miss school, why children miss school, and how states are implementing strategies to tackle absenteeism, states can effectively design interventions that ultimately work to improve students’ engagement with school and their performance.

1. The accountability indicators need to create a more holistic view of student success; they need to measure each of the following: academic achievement; graduation rates for high schools and academic progress for elementary and middle schools; progress in attaining English language proficiency; and at least one state-selected indicator of school quality or student success.