Student Absenteeism: What Do Empty Desks Really Cost?

From being sick to experiencing a family emergency, there are many reasons why students have to miss school sometimes. However, being chronically absent is an issue far more serious.

In fact, absenteeism can have a lasting effect on the opportunity gap, graduation rates and school equity. Here’s how chronic absenteeism affects student learning and school success, and why teachers should start taking note.

The Impact of Absenteeism

It’s a given that students will miss school sometimes and play catch up; all instances of chronic absenteeism, however, can make a lasting impact student learning and success. The first step in understanding the true cost of absenteeism is identifying what this term means.

So what’s the difference between missing a few days of school and being chronically absent? Kate Kelly at Understood explains that chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 18 or more days in the school year.

This equates to about three days per month — which might not seem like much to parents and students. However, chronic absences can spell serious trouble for high school students who need to graduate on time. As the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation points out, students who are chronically absent between grades 8 and 12 are over seven times more likely to drop out before graduation.

Furthermore, in a study of Baltimore City Public Schools, chronic absenteeism was cited as the strongest predictor of not graduating high school. In the same Brookings Education article that cited this study, writers Brian A. Jacob, Ph.D. and Kelly Lovett point out that freshman year absences were nearly as predictive of graduation rates as grade point average and course failures.

Graduation rates vary greatly across states and school districts, but looking at national averages helps emphasize the enormity of the problem. Research cited in an article by professors Shaun M. Dougherty and Michael Gottfried note that the national graduation rate in the United States stands at just 84 percent. While that may seem respectable, it also means that nearly one in five students is not graduating, and so unable to acquire the professional and workplace skills necessary to succeed later in life.

Reduced Real-World Readiness

Chronic absenteeism also prevents students from learning critical skills, social norms and healthy behaviors that employers and colleges look for.

McKenna Wierman at online learning programs provider Edmentum says that chronically absent students are more at risk of experiencing negative social and emotional life circumstances. She adds that chronically absent students are more likely to face negative long-term consequences including poverty and diminished mental and physical health.

For younger students, missing schools can lead to decreased literacy development. For example, a research summary from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research explains that students who were chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade were much less likely to reach the proper reading level by the third grade. When students fall behind their peers so early in their educations, it’s much harder to find equal ground in later grades.

halls -- student absenteeism

Equality, School Climate and Absenteeism

While chronic absenteeism widens the opportunity gap between students from low- and high-income families, one of the causes of missing school in the first place is poverty.

Students from low-income families often have barriers that prevent them from attending school, according to an article written by education reporter Annysa Johnson and data journalist Kevin Crowe. These barriers are complex, varied and personal adds education reporter Nico Savidge. From chronic health conditions to family housing issues, absenteeism is a “symptom of a greater issue.”

If a student is sick but doesn’t have access to healthcare, for example, they might be forced to stay home longer to recuperate. In contrast, a student from a family with health insurance can more easily visit a doctor, receive proper treatment including prescription medicine, and return to school sooner.

Bullying and Discrimination

Chronic absenteeism also widens the opportunity gap for students with learning and attention issues, who are more likely to face bullying and discrimination at school.

Nonprofit research center Child Trends points out in a study of students in grades four and eight that those classified as having a disability were more likely than students without a disability to miss school. Specifically, 26 percent of students with a disability missed three or more school days in one month, compared to 18 percent without a disability.

Additionally, The National Center for Learning Disabilities points out that nearly 1 in 5 students with individualized education programs (IEPs) miss three or more weeks of school each year. That’s in contrast to 1 in 8 students without IEPs.

Chronic Absenteeism Costs Millions

The link between students with learning issues, attendance and bullying was further explored in a report by the University of Texas at Austin co-authored by Craig Talmage, Ph.D. The report cites research showing that 10.4 percent of students in California missed at least one day of school because they felt unsafe, with nearly half of those students pointing to bullying as the reason they felt unsafe.

Because schooling funding in that state is based on attendance rather than enrollment, each student’s absence costs. In one year, for example, absences due to race and ethnicity bullying costs California schools as much as $78 million in lost revenue, Talmage writes. The cost of absenteeism due to religion-based bullying stands at $54 million, which is the same as for gender bias bullying. Sexual orientation bullying costs state schools $62 million and $49 million is lost due to disability-related bias.

Education reporter Melissa B. Taboada referred to a Texas study that shows three missed days equals $34 million in lost funding. And even when a school district ranks in the 90th percentile for attendance compared to other schools in the state, it still means that hundreds of thousands of school days are being missed.

The link between federal funding and absentee rates is further explored in an article by the Hattiesburg American. In Mississippi, the formula that determines how much federal funding school districts receive has a number of variables. One of these is the average daily attendance from October and November for the previous year.

That means lower attendance rates during these months could result in less funding for the school district. This could make it harder for schools to continue pursuing important educational, cultural and social programs.

But how much funding do schools stand do gain when they reduce chronic absenteeism? In Fort Worth, Texas, district schools can bring in an additional $5.1 million a year in state funding, according to Fort Worth Star-Telegram education reporter Diane Smith. With so much funding —  and student learning opportunity — being lost to absenteeism, this school district has set its sights on an attendance initiative fund that engages staff and students across all grades and departments.

Images by: Wokandapix, Mikil Narayani, Shopify

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