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Missing Millions: The Impact of Chronic Absenteeism on Ethnic Minorities

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September 22nd, 2016

The reality in today’s schools is that students are absent and missing out on opportunities to learn—and it’s happening at an alarming rate.

According to research by the U.S. Department of Education, over 6 million students have missed 15 or more days of school in 2013-14. This equates to one in every eight students, or roughly 13 percent of the entire student population.

Students who are chronically absent (defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year, or about 2 days per month) show a tendency to fall behind and, ultimately, drop out of school altogether.

Revealing problems of equity

But a deeper look into the data (provided by U.S. Dept. of Ed.) reveals that students of certain ethnic groups are impacted by chronic absenteeism at much greater rates.


What’s particularly troubling is the impact on ethnic minorities—in particular black and Latino students. More than a fifth of American Indian and Pacific Islander high school students are chronically absent, while 16 percent of black and 13 percent of Hispanic students are effected.

For instance, in the Oakland Unified School District, the disproportionality of chronic absenteeism is even more glaring: 22 percent of African-American high school students were chronically absent compared to 9.6 percent of white students.

Certainly, most statistics don’t exist in a vacuum, and the causes of chronic absenteeism are varied and complex. Factors can range from poor physical health to lack of transportation. In socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, the higher levels of violence and lack of safety present serious challenges.

Additional findings from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights suggest another area of focus. In terms of out-of-school suspensions, black students in K-12 were almost four times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as compared to white students.

“This data is a call for action and an urgent call for action,” said John King, Secretary of Education. “What is particularly distressing are the numbers for students of color. When you think about the impact, more than one-fifth of African-American students in high school being chronically absent suggests we have a lot of work to do.”

Regardless of the causes, there’s no denying the impact that chronic absenteeism has on students.

  • Students who are chronically absent during the preschool, kindergarten and first grade years are less likely to read at grade level by the third grade.
  • Students who can’t read at grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Students who are chronically absent in any year between the eighth and twelfth grade is seven times more likely to drop out of school.

This presents a real problem to school districts. A recent California study found that only 17 percent of children who were chronically absent in both kindergarten and first grade were not proficient readers by the end of third grade.

What steps can we take moving forward?

The problem lies within the data—or more appropriately, what we’re currently doing with the data.

As cited in Chronic Elementary Absenteeism: A Problem Hidden in Plain Sight:

“Schools generally focus on average daily attendance (ADA) figures and mistakenly assume that 95 percent ADA is an indicator of good attendance. This is not necessarily the case. For example, even in a school of 200 students with 95 percent ADA, 30 percent (or 60) of the students could be missing nearly a month of school over the course of the school year. It all depends whether absences are due to most students missing a few days or excessive absences among a small but still significant minority of students.” (Brune, Discher, Chang: 2011)

Certainly, this doesn’t mean schools should disregard ADA. Rather, districts should continue to dig deeper: applying further analysis or triangulation of data to know how many and which students are chronically absent and begin to understand what other variables may be the cause.

Absenteeism is just the very surface of the issue. Adding to this a wider scope of information would give a fuller picture to the problem and further ensure the success of the student. Based on a school’s context, what are the root causes that are causing students to miss school? This could spark related discussions around issues such as community and school engagement, health care, social services and overall student/family experiences.

In the end, the effort to reduce chronic absenteeism, especially amongst ethnic minorities, demands more than improvement plans and policy reform. It’ll require an entire ecosystem—parents, families, community support—coming together and recognizing the problem. But the first step begins with knowing the problem exists—which boils down to accessing the data and understanding the system that produces the outcome.

Additional Resources

Here’s a list of resources for anyone looking to further explore the issue of chronic absenteeism:


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