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News from EPI Missing school hurts academic performance: English language learners and Native American students the most likely to be chronically absent

In a new EPI paper, EPI Economist Emma García and Elaine Weiss, former National Coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, take a deep dive into student absenteeism and its influence on academic performance.

Since its passage in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has required states to report a nontraditional measure of student progress—and absenteeism is emerging as the most popular metric to meet this requirement. Most states now plan to look more closely into student-level attendance metrics, such as the number of days each student misses or if a student is chronically absent.

“Given that most states are using ‘chronic absenteeism’ as a metric in their ESSA accountability plans, understanding the drivers of absenteeism,  what the characteristics of those experiencing higher rates of absenteeism are; and how absenteeism affects student performance is more important than ever,” said García. “The move in education policy toward widening accountability indicators to include indicators of ‘school quality or student success,’ such as absenteeism, is important and useful.”

García and Weiss aim to fill in some of the gaps in the analysis of data surrounding absenteeism. Using National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) data from 2003 and 2015, the authors use this information to describe how much school children are missing, on average; which groups of children miss school most often; and whether there have been any changes in these patterns between 2003 and 2015.

A few key findings include:

  • In 2015, one-in-five eighth graders missed three or more days a month—a proxy for chronic absenteeism.
  • Absenteeism varies significantly depending on race, ethnicity, language, poverty, and disability status. 23.2 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch (FRPL), and 17.9 percent of students eligible for reduced-price lunch missed three school days or more, compared with 15.4 percent of students who were not FRPL-eligible. 26 percent of students with disabilities missed that amount of school.
  • English language learners (ELL) and Native American students were the most likely to miss three or more days of school (24.1 and 24.0 percent, respectively), followed by black students (23.0 percent), and Hispanic non-ELL and white students (19.1 and 18.3 percent, respectively). Only 8.8 percent of Asian non-ELL students missed more than three days of school a month.
  • Among students missing more than 10 days of school, the shares of students eligible for free lunch and students with disabilities were more than double the shares of non-poor, non-IEP students.
  • There were across-the-board reductions in the shares of students who missed three or more days of school and of students missing more than 10 days of school.
  • Chronic absenteeism is associated with lower academic performance, but importantly, the degree to which this is true varies across student groups, as well as by the total number of school-days missed. Generally speaking, as students miss school more frequently, their performance gets worse.

“Missing school has a distinct negative influence on performance, even after the potential mediating influence of other factors is taken into account, and this is true at all rates of absenteeism,” said Weiss. “The bottom line is that the more days of school a student misses, the poorer his or her performance will be, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, or poverty status. In order to help students succeed in school, policymakers should make reducing absenteeism a top priority.”