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Most States Will Use Their ESSA Plans to Tackle the Problem of Student Chronic Absenteeism

When students aren’t in the classroom, they’re missing out on their education. Previously, we looked at chronic absenteeism -- defined as missing 10 or more school days a year -- both in teachers and students. Now, we’re shifting focus to how a growing number of states are looking to take the problem head-on with their ESSA plans.

Under the new ESSA plan requirements, states must submit proposals using five measures to rate student success. The first four are academically related, while the fifth is up for the school to decide, and some 36 states and the District of Columbia are using that last choice to look at the absenteeism issue, according to a report by a think tank, FutureEd, at Georgetown University.

The problem of chronic absenteeism can have a detrimental effect on a child’s education, leaving students struggling to catch up and at risk of dropping out of high school. The Department of Education estimates that as many as one in five high school students are chronically absent. No state is exempt from the problem and it’s a major factor in how states measure a school’s quality and success.

The report’s authors say using a percentage, instead of a set number of days, makes for a better comparison of states across the board since the number of days in a school year can vary. Phyllis Jordan, one of the authors, says that while missing 10 days seems to be the tipping point for most kids, how many chronically absent kids is “too many” for a school is less clear. For Connecticut, that number is less than 5 percent of a school’s student population to be labeled chronically absent. Hawaii is setting the goal for fewer than 9 percent. Jordan also said that states will need to set a clear definition for what constitutes missing a school day. For example, how many periods can a high school student miss before the day is counted as an absence?

Jordan stressed the importance of states learning from the backlash of standardized testing when drawing the line in the sand regarding chronic absenteeism. “There’s a danger in setting that goal too high that you get people either starting to tune out or starting to game the system or starting to revolt, as they did with testing,” Jordan said.

Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, which tracks chronic absenteeism, said she believes five percent is an achievable goal for states, but advised that schools with higher rates set intermediate goals to work up to that. Chang said that schools with particularly high rates of absenteeism could be an indication of larger problems within the community that are “not within the reach of schools to address by themselves.”

Regarding the outlines to address the issue in ESSA plans, requirements must apply to every student, be comparable across the state’s school districts, distinguish differences among schools, and provide data with a proven impact on achievement.

Focusing on the chronic absenteeism issue also addresses another goal of many schools in reducing the rate of school suspensions, write the report’s authors. Since chronic absenteeism includes all missed days, including those because of disciplinary reasons, it gives schools an incentive to keep students in school as much as possible.

Jordan told NPR that a large number of states addressing the issue in their ESSA plans is a good sign so long as states have “realistic, consistent goals and empower schools and districts to get kids to come to schools."


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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