A new analysis of chronic absenteeism in the nation's K-12 schools is holding up Connecticut as a model for data reporting and for improvement.
Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education released the report, called "Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success," on Friday. For the first time, the report includes data reports for all 50 states and an interactive map, developed by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.
For the purposes of this analysis, a student who is chronically absent is one who has missed 15 or more days of school in a year. Unlike truancy, chronic absenteeism counts both excused and unexcused absences.
The authors of the report assert that it's important to study chronic absenteeism because it's associated with falling behind in early literacy, failing middle-school courses and dropping out of high school.
While Connecticut has only the 17th-lowest — just behind Massachusetts — rate of chronic absenteeism, it was one of only three states in which chronic absenteeism improved from the 2013-14 school year to 2015-16.
The study notes that nationwide, nearly 8 million students, or 15 percent, were chronically absent in 2015-16, an increase of 800,000 students from two years prior.
The authors attribute this growth to improved reporting accuracy, noting that almost half the increase came from about 5,500 schools that previously reported no chronically absent students, which is highly unlikely to be accurate.
The report states that Connecticut "has a long history of auditing attendance data and advancing effective practices to reduce chronic absence."
"Connecticut, as a state, has been able to steadily reduce its chronic absence levels for the last about six years," Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, said in a conference call with reporters this week. "They've reduced it pretty significantly, by over about 10,000 kids each year."
She added that the state has built capacity for local districts to have a warning system and has built in professional development to reduce chronic absence. The report also cited Connecticut's EdSight data portal as an easy-to-use, positive example of providing data to the public.
What do the numbers say?
For the 2015-16 school year, the Hamilton Project map shows Connecticut with a 13.7 percent rate of chronic absenteeism. The states with the lowest rates are North Dakota, Vermont, South Carolina, Nebraska and Indiana, ranging from 9.5 percent to 11.5 percent.
The study found that more than half of chronically absent students are in a quarter of the nation's schools, and that the driving factor of high rates of chronic absenteeism is poverty.
Nationally, 44 percent of high schools have extreme or high rates of chronic absenteeism, compared to 21 percent of middle schools and 16 percent of elementary schools.
Students who are Asian or who have limited English proficiency are the least likely to be chronically absent, while those who are Native-American or Hispanic have the highest levels, but local realities can differ. For example, the chronic absenteeism rate for Connecticut students with limited English proficiency is higher, at 19.6 percent.
Chang also noted that schools serving children in special education and vocational education are more likely to see extreme levels of chronic absenteeism.
At 19.2 percent, chronic absenteeism was higher in urban areas in Connecticut than overall, based on the 15 municipalities that the report classified as cities.
The lowest rate of chronic absenteeism locally was 3.1 percent for Preston, while the highest rate was 24 percent for New London.
The report cites student and family surveys, phone banking, assessments by professionals and mentoring as effective strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism.
It also encourages school and district leaders to identify which grades and subgroups are most affected, engage community partners, ensure chronic absence is identified as early as possible, and use data to identify "bright spots."
Chang noted that the historical approach to attendance in the United States has been one of compliance, such that districts threaten to take parents to court if their kids keep missing school.
But she said what works is taking a positive, problem-solving, trauma-informed approach.
"Often when kids miss school, it's because there's something really challenging going on in their lives," Chang said. She added, "We need to transform the way people in this country think about attendance."