By Amy Wiseman, Ph.D.
When E3 Alliance learned from our partner school district superintendents that increasing student attendance was one of the best ways our communities can help improve education systems in Central Texas, we did our homework. As E3 Alliance’s Director of Research Studies, I analyzed student attendance data from school districts across Central Texas and learned that we have 2.4 million student absences per year, and on average, our region has more student absences than the state at every grade.
I also conducted a literature review to see what other researchers have learned about student attendance. While it was clear that student absenteeism is a problem nationwide, there was less clarity on why students are absent. Some research had asked students why they typically miss school, but I could not find any research that systematically addressed the reasons why students are absent and the prevalence of these reasons. So why are Central Texas students missing so much school? It’s a question I’m often asked when I share the alarming student absence trends. I’m also asked: what data schools are collecting when students miss school – what are the reasons?
With those questions in mind, E3 Alliance released the results of our eight-week study at our Missing School Matters Attendance Summit in June. We believe that it is the first such study of its kind in the nation. We worked with nine schools across two school districts where campus attendance personnel called parents when students were absent and obtained the reason for the absence. From this we learned that acute illness was the reason for nearly half of the reported absences. You can see the other reasons that were the most common in the chart below. (Click here to learn more about the report.)
We also found that different sub-populations of students tend to miss school for different reasons. For example, low-income students tended to miss school for medical reasons at a similar rate as their non-low-income peers, yet they missed for non-medical reasons at a higher rate than their peers. In contrast, students at risk of dropping out (by Texas Education Agency definition) had rates of absence that were disproportionately higher for both medical and non-medical absence reasons compared to their peers. These findings suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to combating absenteeism is not as likely to be as effective as approaches targeted at the reasons why students are absent. We will share the best targeted approaches to come out of our Missing School Matters Summit in a future blog post, but first I want to share some of our experience discussing absence reasons with multiple districts and conducting the study in two of them.
Inconsistent Reason Codes Within and Across Districts
The 24 absence reason codes that we created for this study were added to the codes the districts already use to track reasons for absence. We found good consistency across the two participating districts where they used the study codes; however, we were unable to use most of the district codes in our analysis because they often yielded results that differed by district. Through the course of conducting this study we learned that:
- School districts differ in the procedures they use to collect information about students who are not in their regular classroom when attendance is taken.
- School districts differ greatly as to what absence reasons they collect.
- Though districts may appear to use the same absence reason code, the definition of the code may be very different.
- In some districts, each school has its own unique set of absence reason codes.
- In some districts, there is no written documentation to provide guidance for how to use the district reason codes.
- Even districts that use the same list of reason codes at all schools may not use them consistently.
To conduct this study it was necessary for us to create our own detailed codes with definitions and provide the same training to participating attendance personnel in both districts. The districts were trained separately, allowing us to speak to each district using their individual language for absence reasons.
Absence Rate Over Time Very Consistent Across School Districts
In contrast to the lack of consistency districts have in coding absence reasons, students were absent at remarkably similar rates over time across the two school districts (see chart below). The one exception was Thanksgiving week where one district took the whole week off and the other district did not (and shows an absence peak).
Click chart to enlarge
Even more surprising was that the peaks and valleys in absence rates that were so consistent appeared to be driven by acute illness absences (short-lived, typically contagious illness, such as cold, flu, strep, etc.). In fact, across the eight weeks of the study, the overall absence pattern was nearly identical to the acute illness absence pattern. It was no surprise that the acute illness rates were also remarkably similar across districts, with nurses from both districts reporting the highest absence peak as a flu outbreak and the second highest peak as a stomach flu outbreak.
What is so remarkable about finding the same acute illness pattern is that these districts are not geographically contiguous; one district, Pflugerville ISD is north of Austin and the other, Hays Consolidated ISD is to the south. The only thing they have in common geographically is that they are both bisected by the major north-south route through town, I-35. Thus it appears our study detected outbreaks of illness across the Central Texas region.
This study marks the beginning of an effort to learn detailed information about student absences in a way that has not been understood to date. We hope that the findings will help school districts across our region and the country develop a consistent and precise way to measure and track student absences that ultimately will lead to systemic change as we combat absenteeism. Getting absent students back in the classroom will help teachers to teach, students to succeed, and dollars to return to our schools.
The study is part of E3 Alliance’s regional effort to increase student attendance called Missing School Matters. We’re pleased to be working with Attendance Works, a national organization that is organizing National Attendance Month in September of 2013. To learn more about the campaign, and how you can get involved, visit www.missingschoolmatters.org.
Amy Wiseman, Ph.D. is the E3 Alliance Director of Research Studies. She brings 20 years of experience with research and data analysis to E3 Alliance where she engages in education research studies and program evaluations addressing the state of education in Central Texas.