Groundbreaking Johns Hopkins analysis shows national scale of chronic student absence

New analysis released this month by the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Everyone Graduates Center and the national nonprofit group Attendance Works reports that in the 2015-16 school year, nearly 8 million students nationwide—about one out of seven students—were missing so many school days that they were at risk of failing academically.

The report, Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success, is the most comprehensive analysis to date of national data on chronic absence—defined as missing at least 15 school days during the school year. The report compares the first-ever release of chronic absence data in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection to the most recent 2015-16 school year CRDC release. Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Work, was the report’s primary author, supported by the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Everyone Graduates Center.

“For too long we have looked at the wrong attendance measure – average daily attendance – rather than how many students are not attending school regularly. As a result, a major driver of lower achievement has been hiding in plain sight. Too many of our students are not in school often enough to fully benefit from it,” says Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center, and a research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools.

Even if you look at the highest poverty level, you will see in most states, a number of schools that have really low rates of chronic absenteeism. That’s a signal that there are some bright spots and success stories.

The ten key findings from the report include some expected conclusions as well as many surprises. Poverty, not locale, remains the driving factor for chronic absence, for example, but the analysis also revealed significant geographical variation in absenteeism. Vaughn Byrnes, a Johns Hopkins data analyst with the Everyone Graduates Center and Center for the Social Organization of Schools, analyzed the data and was a report author as well, with support from Balfanz.

In eight states and the District of Columbia, more than 20 percent of students missed at least 15 days during the 2015-16 school year. The problem was most apparent in Maryland, by household income the nation’s wealthiest state, with 29.1 percent of students chronically absent. Of those nearly 8 million students, 52 percent were concentrated in schools where chronic absenteeism rates topped 20 percent. Another critical conclusion is that one out of four schools face high or extreme levels of chronic absence.

Released during Attendance Awareness Month, the report includes data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with an interactive map from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project that allows everyone from parents to policymakers to explore the issue by school, district, state and country.

In addition, the analysis found that, nationwide, schools with high concentrations of poverty were also more likely to have high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Among schools where more than 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, 17 percent had rates of chronic absenteeism that topped 30 percent, the report shows. And an additional 17 percent had rates between 20 percent and 29.9 percent. By comparison, just 4 percent of schools where fewer than 24 percent of students were low-income had chronic absenteeism rates above 30 percent.

Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students are also disproportionately represented among chronically absent students.

Absentee rates also were extremely high at schools focused on special education. At about half of those schools, more than 30 percent of students missed at least 15 school days. Twenty-seven percent of vocational schools had that level of chronic absenteeism, along with 47 percent of alternative schools.

Schools shouldn’t see high rates of poverty or out-of-school challenges as destiny, says Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

“Even if you look at the highest poverty level, you will see in most states, a number of schools that have really low rates of chronic absenteeism,” he says. “That’s a signal that there are some bright spots and success stories.”

States can explore those success stories to determine what works and what can be replicated in other schools, Balfanz says.