Schools can’t be effective if students don’t show up. That was the conclusion of a study of the impact of chronic absenteeism released this week by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University and the Indiana Partnerships Center.
The idea makes sense: The less often students are in class, the less they will learn. But the correlation between attendance and student achievement that the study found was striking. Students who were chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days, scored much lower on state tests than those with solid attendance records. And students who missed a lot of school were far less likely to graduate from high school.
“Whether a student’s absences are excused or unexcused, whether the student is cutting classes without his parents’ knowledge or going on vacation with his parents, his chronic absence negatively affects his academic performance in profound ways,” Indiana Partnerships Center director Jacqueline Garvey said in a news release.
The study looked at school-level data for a six-year period. It also tracked individual records for two cohorts of Indiana students: kindergartners and sixth-graders in 2003-04. Findings included:
— By third grade, attendance was associated with big gaps in ISTEP-Plus test scores. Students with exemplary attendance had average scores of 437 in math and 447 in English; students who were chronically absent scored 390 in math and 409 in English.
— Average eighth-grade scores for students with exemplary attendance were 571 in math and 548 in English; for chronically absent students, 507 in math and 513 in English.
— In an even more striking finding, 88 percent of students with exemplary attendance graduated from high school on time, while just 24 percent of chronically absent students graduated on time.
The study found students from low-income families were more likely to be chronically absent. But the link between attendance and graduation held true for all income levels and for all racial and ethnic groups. Among students who qualified for free school lunches, 64 percent of students with exemplary attendance graduated on time, but just 17 percent of chronically absent students graduated on time. Among middle- and upper-income students, 77 percent with exemplary attendance graduated, compared to just 33 percent of students who were chronically absent.
The figures suggest that focusing on attendance could be a very effective way to improve education – maybe preferable to changing teacher evaluation, giving parents more choices or closing failing schools.
Of course, the study doesn’t prove that poor attendance causes academic problems. Possibly other factors cause students both to miss school and to struggle when they attend. But if nothing else, the study suggests poor attendance should be a red flag for teachers and school officials.
Fortunately, this doesn’t appear to be a study that reaches important conclusions and then gathers dust on a shelf. The Indiana Partnerships Center has launched a “missing school matters” public-awareness campaign, complete with website and 20 billboards erected around Indianapolis. And the study makes recommendations that should be heard by Indiana policymakers. For example, it says Indiana should start by adopting a consistent definition of chronic absenteeism, one that includes both excused and unexcused absences as well as absences that result when students are suspended.
As the Partnerships Center points out, the reasons students miss school can be complex and messy. Homelessness, a lack of transportation, mental illness, fear of bullying and other factors can play a role. For older students, family and work can get in the way. Addressing those issues won’t be easy.
But at least 55,200 Indiana students, and probably many more, are missing at 10 percent or more of school days. That’s a big opportunity to make a difference.