Showing Up to Learn: The Effect of Chronic Absenteeism on Literacy Development

Showing Up to Learn: The Effect of Chronic Absenteeism on Literacy Development

As educators, we know the importance of creating and delivering high-quality instruction for maximizing student achievement. In K–12 literacy programs, providing a strong curriculum and assessments for students is an essential component of skill development and meeting expectations of standardized tests.

But what happens when, despite all of this preparation, a student misses class? On an occasional basis, absence is a relatively small challenge to overcome, but when they occur with enough regularity, they may not only jeopardize a student’s current opportunity to learn but set the stage for difficulties throughout the individual's educational career. Chronic absenteeism is affecting millions of students across the nation, and is a problem that can be detrimental to reading ability and literacy scores.  

What is chronic absenteeism?

Students are considered chronically absent when they miss so much school (whether excused or unexcused) that they become at risk of falling behind academically. Yet according to the Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence report by the national nonprofit Attendance Works, there is no clear agreement on how many days constitute a chronic absence. As a result, missing 10% of the school year is the minimal criterion for chronic absenteeism in many states, though federal data is based on 15 school days.

According to the 2013–2014 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), a survey of all public schools in the country by the U.S. Department of Education:

  • More than 6.5 million students (13% of the school-age population) were considered chronically absent

  • The highest absenteeism rates were in high school settings, where 1 in 5 students missed more than 15 days in the school year; in contrast, 11% of elementary students were chronically absent

  • Contributing factors to chronic absenteeism were varied and included transportation issues, poor health, lack of safety, and homelessness, amongst others

The importance of the early years

“Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.”

—U.S. Department of Education, “Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools”

The critical instruction given in literacy during the first few years (as early as pre-K) serves as the foundation for student achievement across the curriculum later in life. These abilities—including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—are essential for developing social skills, understanding content in other subjects, and navigating and drawing meaning from the world. Yet when children regularly miss out on instruction, they have less opportunity to learn, practice, and advance in these areas.     

What effect does chronic absenteeism have on literacy?

In a study on the impact of absences on third grade reading scores, researchers found that:

  • Only 17% of children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and grade 1 were proficient readers by the end of grade 3,  compared to 64% of regular attending students

  • Students with high attendance risk in kindergarten and/or first grade scored an average of 50 points lower on third-grade ELA tests

  • Students with good attendance in both grades had significantly higher scores on the third-grade ELA test; when absences increased, the likelihood of performing at grade level on both ELA and math tests decreased

Further research on the topic indicates the same trend—more time away from school leads to weaker literacy skills.

"Compared to children with average attendance, chronically absent students gained 14% fewer literacy skills in kindergarten, and 15% fewer literacy skills and 12% fewer mathematics skills in first grade, based on analysis of a nationally representative data set." (Ready, 2010)

"A statistical analysis by the Georgia Department of Education found that just a 3% improvement in attendance—five additional days—would have led more than 55,000 students to pass end-of-year standardized tests in reading, English, or mathematics in grades 3 to 8. The biggest impact was for students who missed between five and 10 days of school, suggesting that missing even a week to two weeks can have a significant negative impact on achievement." (Barge, 2011)


Addressing the issue of chronic absences

The severity of the absence problem as displayed by the CRDC was eye-opening for many education professionals and policy makers. As a result, school districts are now mandated to address the issue. Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), districts must provide data on chronic absences in addition to other required reporting metrics. Reporting is designed to:

  • Collect regular data for ongoing analysis

  • Help districts gain a greater understanding of their attendance problems

  • Determine how to best implement interventions under the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)

With the knowledge that chronically absent students are likely to fall behind in reading, interventions should focus on not only combating the attendance problem but also on providing specific intervention to increase literacy scores. Given that each student is likely to be at a different place based on how many and which days of instruction were missed, many schools are finding success through personalized learning programs for students reading below grade level. Programs utilizing computer-based assessments make it possible to identify the specific needs of each student and plan instruction accordingly.

The integration of the MTSS structure is designed to address many of the issues that may be contributing factors to chronic absenteeism. That said, absenteeism is likely to continue to be a nationwide hot topic in the years to come. Powered by this information, it is important to put programs into place today to meet the needs of these students—especially in the area of literacy—to offer the best possible chance at achievement throughout education.  

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