Yes, Skipping School Correlates With Low Test Scores—Now What?

Increasingly, educators and policymakers are focusing on student attendance as a crucial factor in school improvement efforts. Recent research has found that poor attendance in the early grades can predict whether a student’s reading skills are on track at the end of third grade—a crucial indicator of future academic success. Long-term studies have also predicted high-school dropouts by their early records of absenteeism. Absences at the start of the academic year should be taken particularly seriously, according to one Baltimore study: Nine out of 10 students who missed five days in September went on to be chronically absent for the year—skipping on average 70 instructional days. (September is also National Attendance Awareness Month.)

In its new report the San Francisco-based Attendance Works says states and districts aren’t doing enough to track chronic school absenteeism, and there’s a lack of consistency in both methodology and terminology. That’s making it harder to identify successful strategies and then take them to scale.

“To come up with a solution you have to know you have a problem,” said Hedy Chang, Attendance Works’ director. “Right now many districts and states don’t realize how serious their absenteeism rates are in part because they’re simply not tracking the data.”

Chang pointed to research showing that students who are chronically absent become less engaged in learning as the school year progresses—again, not a surprise but still a troubling finding. Another study found absences in early grades predicted whether students developed the social-emotional skills (popularly referred to as “grit” in some education reform circles) to persevere later in their academic careers.

When asked why they skip school, older students typically give a range of reasons from family problems to outright boredom (an answer particularly common among high schoolers, according toone recent survey). Remaking schools into a place where students want to be is certainly one of the elements of improving attendance. But while many educators are focusing on boosting student interest and motivation, lawmakers are trying more aggressive tactics to tackle truancy, often with mixed results.

In some states students drivers’ licenses if they’re not in good standing on school attendance, while in others parents face fines, loss of driving privileges and even jail time for letting their kids skip class. In a particularly tragic case earlier this year, a Pennsylvania mother died of heart failure while serving out a sentence imposed after she couldn’t pay $2,000 in truancy fines, evidence that these kinds of tactics are having a lasting impact. 

The answer isn’t more threats of punishment, said Attendance Works’ Chang, who added that the most successful interventions have been those that match at-risk students—and their families—with trained mentors and support networks. (Check out a particularly compelling example from New York City.)

Classroom teachers are the first line of defense because they’re most likely to notice patterns of absenteeism. But there also need to be early warning systems to alert parents to the risk of even a handful of skipped days, Chang said, as well as school-community partnerships to help identify and support families that are struggling to get their kids to school regularly.

“If you think a school is just going to scold you or arrest you for not showing up, that’s not engagement,” Chang said. “What’s needed is a personal connectionsomeone saying ‘Where were you today? We missed you. How can we help?”

This post appears courtesy of  The Educated Reporter.

Presented by

Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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