About 7 percent of California’s elementary school students — or 210,000 schoolchildren in the state — were “chronically absent” from school last year, according to California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
According to estimates in a report on truancy and chronic absenteeism in the state’s elementary schools, “chronically absent” students missed school at least 10 percent of all school days during the 2015-16 school year.
Research shows that school absenteeism is closely connected with school performance and graduation rates. It can also be a cause for alarm about a child’s wellbeing and safety.
“We see attendance at school as a flashing warning light,” said Michael Newman, director of the Bureau of Children’s Justice in California at a recent conference on child trauma. “Because if you’re not in school as an elementary school student, something is going on. It means that something is happening to prevent you from being at school.”
The rate of chronic absenteeism has risen one percent since 2012-2013, which the authors attribute to better reporting of data.
The report also noted significant disparities. The rate of chronic absence among African-American elementary students was 14 percent, double the rate for all students. Special-education students had a chronic absenteeism rate of 12 percent. About 77 percent of all chronically absent students were low income.
Among elementary school students, chronic absence rates are higher in the lower grades. The rate was 11.4 percent for kindergarteners and 8 percent for first graders, while it was close to 6 percent for all other elementary school grades.
Missing so many days of school so early on can take a serious toll on a child’s performance.
Seventy-five percent of the students who were chronically absent from kindergarten and first grade failed to meet California’s standards on tests in math and English language arts when they were in third grade, according to the report. That is 15 percent higher than the failure rate for students who were not chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade.
The report also cites research that 83 percent of these students who were chronically absent in those early grades could not read at a third-grade reading level during third grade – a statistic that makes them four times more likely to drop out of high school.
“This cumulative impact creates a vicious cycle for children, highlighting the importance of early attendance,” the report reads.
One of the report’s recommendations for addressing absenteeism in these early grades is to develop infrastructure to track and monitor preschool attendance in publicly funded programs. It recommends that California follow the example of the national, publicly funded pre-school program Head Start. Recently, Head Start issued performance standards that require Head Start programs across the U.S. to monitor and address when children are missing 10 percent of preschool.
Through the report, Harris also pointed out a statewide change that is taking effect in the current school year. As part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), all local education agencies will submit data to the California Department of Education on all school absences and out-of-school suspensions, and chronic absence rates will become part of the state’s new accountability system.
Attorney General Harris has released this report on absenteeism and truancy for the past four years, using longitudinal research that tracks a sample of almost 500,000 elementary school students throughout the state.