Chronic Absence A Huge Problem In American Schools

Chronic absence from school is a bigger problem than previously thought. A new report released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows that a staggering number of students are chronically absent from school. The data was published in the department’s Civil Rights Data Collection report, a biannual survey of all public schools in the country.

The survey covered over 95,000 schools and 50 million students. For the purposes of the study, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 15 or more days of school throughout the 180-day school year. According to the results of the study, the national average for chronic absenteeism for the 2013-2014 school year was 13 percent, or more than 6.5 million students nationwide. That means that more than one out of every 10 students missing at least three full weeks of school.

The survey showed that there are a higher percentage of chronically absent students in high school than in elementary schools. For high school students, the chronically absent rate reached 18 percent, or about 3 million students. For elementary schools, the rate reached 11 percent, or about 3.5 million students. The data also shows that chronic student absenteeism is more prevalent where the majority of teachers are also frequently absent, which was defined as more than half of teachers absent for more than 10 days.

Chronic absence does not appear to be an issue everywhere. Of the 100 largest school districts by enrollment, the Detroit City School District had the highest rate of chronic absenteeism, with nearly 58 percent of students chronically absent in the 2013-2014 school year. In Washington, D.C., nearly a third of students were absent 15 days or more. Washington state and Alaska both had absentee rates of around 25 percent of students. Florida had the lowest rate, with 4.5 percent of students chronically absent.

The data from the survey shows that boys and girls had nearly equal rates of chronic absence. The data also shows that some ethnic groups are faring worse than others. While white students were found to be close to the average of 13 percent, American-Indian, African-American, Pacific Islander and multiracial children were found to have significantly higher levels of chronic absence. Nearly 22 percent of American Indian students were reported as regularly absent, with the next highest being Native Hawaiians at 21 percent. Black and Latino high school students had about the same rate of absenteeism at 17 percent.

The new report is the first time that the department has release information on chronic absentee figures. Knowing the results are important because previous studies have shown that missing just 10 percent or more of school, starting in kindergarten, is an early sign of academic risk. Kids that are chronically absent show lower levels of numeracy and literacy by third grade, regularly fail classes in middle school, and often drop out in high school. Having the data could be an invaluable tool for quickly identifying which schools and students are in most need of preventive action and early intervention.