By Categories: EducationTags: Comments Off on The Silent Disruptor: Chronic Absenteeism Quietly Undermines Student Success

A staggering 7 million students across the nation miss so much school that they are considered academically at risk.

Chronic absenteeism affects you no matter what grade you are affiliated with – and whether you’re a teacher, administrator, or superintendent.

Much like graduation (and dropout) rates, chronic absenteeism is not confined to a single state or geographic region. And while subgroups of students are disproportionality affected, chronic absenteeism is not confined to one population of students either.

This is a topic that affects people across the spectrum: from student to state.

What is Chronic Absenteeism?

The word “chronic absence” was coined in 2008 by Hedy Chang, who published research on whether or not missing school in early grades correlated to low reading proficiency by the end of third grade. Hedy needed a way to distinguish between truancy and when a child missed too much school regardless of whether it was excused.

          The Avoidable and Unavoidable: Truancy vs Chronic Absenteeism

Students are considered truant when they skip or miss school without permission (unexcused). Truancy is often associated with behavioral issues on the student’s part because these absences are not excused. (States vary in their definition and consequences, so make sure to check your school’s handbook of policy and procedures to determine what these are for your school.)

However, there can be numerous reasons why students may be absent from school for excused reasons. In fact, some of the most common excused reasons for a student being absent from school can include the following:

  • Chronic illnesses such as asthma
  • Extended/severe illness
  • Hospitalization
  • Medical appointments that can only be scheduled during school hours
  • Mental health issues
  • Religious holiday observances
  • Family emergencies (including death in the family)
  • Natural disasters
  • Homelessness
  • Foster care situations
  • Pregnancy
  • Suspension
  • And so many more!

According to Attendance Works, “Chronic absence refers to students who are repeatedly absent during the school year.” Repeatedly, in this case, is defined as students missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason; both excused and unexcused absences. This is equivalent to 18 days out of a 180-day school year (or 2 days per month).

          How was Chronic Absenteeism Overlooked for So Long?

Schools have [always] taken roll (attendance) at the start of class; even in the time of one-room schoolhouses. Schools and districts have taken this daily attendance as information to determine their Average Daily Attendance (ATD). The problem is that schools often assume that if they have over a 90% ADA they must be doing a pretty good job at keeping kids in school. However, what is being overlooked is the interpretation of the data and not identifying if there are patterns to the same students missing school repeatedly. posed the example: “Even if a school of 200 students with 95 percent average daily attendance, 30 percent (or 60) of the students could be missing nearly a month of school (i.e. chronically absent) over the course of a school year.”

What Repercussions Does Chronic Absenteeism Pose for Students?

Chronic absenteeism is a critical early indicator of poor student performance. All educators know that when kids miss school, they miss out on learning opportunities. And when they miss out on many of these learning opportunities – especially in the foundational and basic skills taught in elementary school – students are at increased risk of falling behind and dropping out of school.

Nationwide, nearly 10 percent of kindergartners and 1st graders are chronically absent. A recent study in California found that 17 percent of students who were chronically absent in 1st grade were proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade. This is compared to the 64 percent who were not chronically absent.

Children living in poverty tend to be at higher risk of being chronically absent.  These students are four times more likely to be chronically absent than their peers who are not living in poverty.

What Repercussions Does Chronic Absenteeism Pose for Schools?

First and foremost, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states and districts to report their chronic absenteeism data publicly. This is an important legal obligation that districts are held accountable for, and it further allows districts to analyze causes and implement possible approaches to address and combat chronic absence.

When students chronically miss school, not only does it hurt the student, but it also disrupts and affects classrooms, schools, and districts. And districts across the nation are fighting back against chronic absenteeism. As Charlene Russell-Tucker, chief operating officer for the Connecticut Department of Education put it, “You can’t close the opportunity and achievement gap without students being in schools.”

Connecticut has become a prime example of leading this fight. In addition to adding chronic absenteeism data to their ESSA plans, the state is going above and beyond the law by getting creative, working collaboratively (including through community outreach), training staff on recognizing chronic absenteeism, and thinking about possible solutions to reduce it. This multi-pronged approach has been connected to the state seeing a drop from 11.5 percent rate of chronic absenteeism in 2012/13 to 9.6 percent rate in 2015/16.

ESSA Compliance: The Fifth Indicator

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include five indicators for school performance in their State Education Policy (SEP).  The first set of these plans was submitted to the Department of Education in Fall of 2017. Four indicators focus on school academic achievement, and the fifth indicator requires states to indicate a “non-academic” measure to calculate school quality and success. With the plans now defined by the states, schools, and districts rely on their State Education Policy to specify how key topics are defined (including chronic absence), how these policies will be carried out, and how states will hold schools accountable.

For many states, measuring chronic absence was easy to include because schools were already measuring attendance. Tracking, measuring, and reporting chronic absence is also objective. Students are either in class or they’re not. Because of the objectivity of using chronic absence as a measure, it’s a popular choice for states to use as their fifth indicator. Under their SEP, each state decides how to define and address both truancy and attendance. States also decide whether or not attendance is used to allocate funding.

How is your state handling chronic absenteeism? Because every state handles chronic absence differently, make sure to check out your state goals and school handbook for absence requirements and repercussions.

Could Online Learning be a Solution for Your School?

In addition to finding ways schools, parents, and community partners can work together to overcome chronic absence, many schools are betting on ‘going digital.’

Schools are finding that the flexibility, customization, and personalization of online learning can help students who may be having a hard time staying in class. For example, when schools encounter an unforeseen natural disaster with a large gap in instructional time from a hurricane or flooding, students can often continue their learning from home.  It can also help students stay on track when coping with a social or emotional situation that prevents them from attending class.


Chronic absenteeism affects all states, districts, and even schools. When students aren’t able to continue learning, it affects us all. As districts start thinking creatively about how they plan to combat the issue, schools are looking at digital solutions as a possible resource. Online Learning is a proven solution that provides flexibility, customization, and personalization. Schools can leverage online learning to better support students who are missing too much school and may even be on the verge of dropping out.