Oct. 8, 2015
At the end of every school year, after all my kindergarten students had finished their last day celebrations and hurried off to pursue their summer adventures, I would reflect on the success stories of the year. There was that one student who entered kindergarten knowing only a handful of letter names and left reading complete sentences, or another who decided that math was actually pretty fun once she realized she was able to add and subtract all on her own. And, of course, there were also a couple of students who didn’t meet the lofty ambitions I had set for them back in September. These students were unable to strengthen their early reading and math skills to the level needed to enter first grade ready for new challenges. After a couple of years teaching I started to notice a pattern among many of my low-performing students: they missed school, a lot of school. Not a few days here and there due to illness, but days or even weeks at a time when their spot on the carpet would be vacant and their friends would ask about their whereabouts.
It turns out that the attendance issues in my kindergarten classroom were not an anomaly, but the norm. At least 10 percent of kindergartners and first graders nationwide are chronically absent from school, according to a report last month by Attendance Works and Healthy Schools Campaign. The same study found that low-income kindergartners were four times more likely to be chronically absent than their more affluent peers. These chronically absent students miss at least eighteen days of school per year, translating into almost a month of missed instructional time. In California, kindergarten students are the most likely of any elementary school students to be chronically absent. Specifically, 14.2 percent of California kindergartners are chronically absent compared to just 8.8 percent of first graders. In Rhode Island, sixteen percent of kindergartners are chronically absent compared to ten percent of third graders.
This chronic absenteeism among kindergarten students has serious consequences. Students who are chronically absent in the vital early grades of pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to be reading at grade level by the end of third grade, according to a study conducted by the University of Chicago. A recent report from the California Attorney General found that eighty-three percent of chronically absent California kindergartners and first graders were unable to read proficiently by the end of third grade. It’s now well-understood that students who fail to read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than skilled readers to drop out of high school. And Rhode Island found that chronically absent kindergartners not only had lower levels of math and literacy achievement as far out as the seventh grade, but were also twice as likely to be retained.
There is good news among all these sobering statistics, however. On Wednesday, in recognition of the fact that chronic absenteeism is a major cause of low academic achievement throughout the nation, the Obama Administration announced the launch of the Every Student, Every Day initiative. According to the Department of Education, an estimated five to seven and a half million students are chronically absent each year in America’s schools. The Every Student, Every Day initiative aims to reduce chronic absenteeism by at least ten percent each school year, beginning with the current year. The initiative calls on state and local agencies and organizations to work together to identify and support chronically absent students. As part of the initiative the Administration released a community toolkit that provides information and resources to help community stakeholders work to reduce student absenteeism.
So what immediate actions can be taken to reduce chronic absenteeism? First, states have to do a better job of tracking and sharing student absence data. Information about chronic absence should be easily accessible online so that stakeholders are able to identify specific schools and student groups in need of assistance. Seven states, including California, currently do not collect attendance information in its longitudinal student database. However, Hawaii, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are a few of the growing number of state departments of education that are calculating and sharing data regarding chronic student absence. More states should follow their lead so that the extent of the absenteeism problem in each state is better understood.
Another action that can be immediately taken to reduce absenteeism, especially in kindergarten, is to shift the focus of school districts away from punishment for excessive absences and towards an attitude of absence prevention through increased parental engagement. The recent California Attorney General study found widespread parent misperceptions about the importance of attendance in the early grades. Specifically, many parents reported feeling that early grade attendance isn’t as important as high school attendance due to the mistaken belief that students will catch up before they get to high school. Intentional efforts to discuss with parents the link between consistent attendance in kindergarten and later academic success could go a long way in clearing up such misperceptions.
Real academic gains can’t happen without consistent student attendance, no matter how skilled the teacher might be. Better attendance data at the state level combined with targeted parent outreach at the school level can go a long way towards decreasing chronic absences and ensuring that all children make significant academic gains during the school year. No student should miss out on a quality early education just because they don’t show up."