Effects of Chronic Absenteeism on Academic Achievement

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            Improving school attendance and truancy in elementary schools has become an important goal for districts as they must track and address chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans under California’s Local Control Funding Formula and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The data could be among the measures included in the state’s dashboard of student performance measures as soon as the fall of 2018. Inconsistent school attendance and high absence rates are normally a result of multiple factors related to the young person, their family, neighborhood, and the school itself among others (Sugrue, Zuel, LaLiberteand, 2016) becomes a cause for additional difficulties such as poor academic performance, delinquency, school dropout, employment problems, and earlier and increased substance use and abuse (Fowler, 2015). The purpose of this paper is to develop an initial literature review draft on the effects of chronic absenteeism on academic achievement.

Chronic Absenteeism

            Chronic absence is a sign that a student is in jeopardy for school failure and possibly early dropout, regardless of the reason.

Definition of Chronic Absenteeism

            According to the California Department of Education (2018), along with a majority of states in the Unites States (Dougherty, 2018), define a chronically absent student as one who misses at least ten percent of the school year. However, the U.S. federal government defines chronic absenteeism as students who have missed 15 days of school in a given school year compared to the state’s definition of students who have been absent ten percent or more of the school days. Chronic absenteeism is a relatively new designation that is still being defined in state and federal educational policy. Truancy, an established designation, focuses on unexcused absences unlike chronic absenteeism which can include absences for any reason. With truancy, all states have a definition and a code addressing it in their education code, a response structure, and a policy in place that can include both students and parents, as well as the criminal justice system. Chronic absenteeism does not have a common definition or a systematic process for handling cases in all states.

Significance of the Problem

            Chronic absenteeism is a complex problem with many factors with recent research calling it a nationwide crisis (Chang & Davis, 2015). Missing 10% or more of a school year greatly increases the probability that a student will experience significant academic problems (e.g., poor grades and test scores) in the short term and significant social (e.g., incarceration) and socioeconomic (e.g., educational attainment and employment) challenges in the longer term (Fowler, 2015, Sugrue, Zuel, LaLiberteand, 2016, Mallett, 2016, Gottfried & Kirksey 2017, Gershenson, Jacknowitz, & Brannegan, 2017, London, Sanchez, & Castrechini, 2016).

            Students who are repeatedly absent from school, miss important learning and developmental connections can potentially have negative consequences on future learning and outcomes. In California, three-quarters of kindergarten and first grade students who had been chronically absent, failed meeting state reading and math proficiency standards in third grade (Harris 2016). When absenteeism reaches high levels in a classroom or school, all students are affected as it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers to engage all students and meet their individual needs. In the United States, approximately 10% of all elementary school students are chronically absent increasing to almost 20% of high school students (US DOE, 2017).

            Furthermore, across all racial groups, as student’s progress through elementary school and into middle and high school, the likelihood of absenteeism increases. Although chronic absenteeism is a universal problem, it is most prevalent among students of color, students with disabilities, students enrolled in urban school districts, and students in high-poverty schools regardless of jurisdiction. Many of these same students have overlapping characteristics such as poverty, ethnicity, and locale. Educators are challenged with multiple causes that add to the severity to the already existing problem, and often come with complex (Lara, Noble, Pelika, Coons, 2018).

Policies Related to Chronic Absenteeism

            The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), increased accountability for states, school districts, and schools, however provided more flexibility for states and local agencies in how they use federal education dollars. NCLB, signed into law in January 2002, held schools accountable for raising math and reading proficiency as well as high school graduation rates. The Adequate Yearly Progress measures held elementary and middle schools accountable for student absenteeism (NCLB, 2001).

            Although absenteeism is an old problem, there is now a new impetus for addressing it. The newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the NCLB, mandates chronic absenteeism to be reported at the school and district levels, thus allowing the use of federal funds for preventive measures and training to reduce chronic absence. In addition, chronic absenteeism can be included as a school-quality indicator in state-level ESSA accountability systems. States will now have to establish data systems for tracking student absenteeism and report the information collected. Therefore, school systems are more likely to intensify efforts at implementing solutions to chronic absenteeism (ESSA, 2015).

            The U.S. Department of Education released data on chronic absenteeism, revealing that 14 percent of the total student population were absent at least 15 days during the 2013-2014 school year. In October 2015, the presidential administration launched the Every Student, Every Day initiative (2015) to reduce chronic absenteeism by at least ten percent each year, beginning in 2016. 

            California has a new way of addressing local school and district progress known as the California School Dashboard, which looks at multiple measures including school attendance rates (Bauer, Liu, Schanzenbach, Shambaugh, 2018).

Theoretical Framework

            Literature has established the important roles, with the application of systems theory, that community, school, family, and individual factors play in truancy.  Sugrue, Zuel, and LaLiberte (2016) state that for elementary school–age children, the most prominent microsystems are the family and home environment and the school. Other systematic problems between the school and home have been found to contribute to poor attendance. Such factors include the communication difficulties between school staff and families, which result in parents’ lack of understanding of critical school attendance policies and procedures and contribute to parents’ negative feelings regarding the school system. However, few studies implicate motivational factors as contributing to a student’s decision to attend school. Bandura’s motivational theory (1986) helps in determining what kinds of motivation would improve school attendance for at-risk youth. Motivation theory is a multifaceted theoretical strand that concentrates on why and how human behavior is activated and directed. A motivational factor may be aligned with the ethic of care theory (Gilligan, 1982; Nodding, 1984), which is about acts of love and establishing relationships that empower others (Gilligan, 1982). Nodding (1992) argues that as human beings, we are all capable of caring “for and about” others. It is the act of caring that enables interpersonal relationships between individuals to grow and develop. In a recent research review, Ekstrand (2015) found that students are drawn to school when there are feelings of school success reached by strengthening core competencies, when bonding with adults is a possibility, and when the school climate is positive.

Leading Causes of Absenteeism

            Medical illness continues to be one of the significant causes and the most legitimate reasons for chronic absenteeism. (Havik, Bru, & Ertesvag, 2015). In fact, research indicates that among the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students who are chronically absent, two-thirds of the absences are typically attributed to student health problems, such as asthma, and transportation (Samuels, 2015).  Other studies look at more severe medical issues and their contribution to school nonattendance.

            School environment is another contributing factor to school nonattendance. Bullying, curriculum, student-teacher relationships, and other peer issues are all categorized as school environment concerns (Teasely, 2004).  Research by Lannegrand-Willems, Cosnefroy, and Lecigne, 2011), reinforce school environment concerns by stating that students who are frequently absent often feel that they have a lack of control over their education. Due to these feelings, absentee students feel that have limited control of their success, view the school system as unfair, and turn to absentee behaviors. Research recommends that students need to feel more connected to the school, teachers, and faculty so they are less likely to be frequently absent from school than their disconnected counterparts (Ekstrand, 2015). Ingul, Klockner, Silverman & Nordahl, (2012) state that in order for students to value school and attend, they must feel supported and safe. Connectedness to a faculty member is a preventive factor in all areas of school environment-related absenteeism (Ingul et al., 2012; Havik et al., 2015).

            Anxiety is another key factor in school nonattendance. It is linked closely with other variables such as the school environment and other mental health concerns (Kearney & Graczyk, 2013). Anxiety felt by a student can interfere in the daily life of a student, therefore it can also impact school attendance. Test anxiety and performance anxiety also occur at high frequencies in school settings. For some students, generally at the elementary level, separation anxiety can cause students to struggle leaving their parents to attend school. Lastly, generalized anxiety can cause students to worry constantly about everything all day (Kearney & Graczyk, 2013).

            Lastly, familial issues can contribute to school nonattendance if there is the presence of hostility, fighting, violence, and abuse in a household. (Havik et al., 2015). When addressing family-related attendance issues, lower socio-economic status is simply more significantly correlated with school nonattendance, however, it is not a causing factor (Havik et al., 2015).

Commonly Used Interventions

            Researchers have pursued implementation of a variety of interventions to address absenteeism and factors associated with it. Some interventions attempt to target a particular factor causing absenteeism, and others try and address absenteeism on a general level. Response to Intervention, also known as RTI, is one model for addressing student issues on school, community, familial, and individual levels (Kearney & Graczyk, 2013). There are three tiers of intervention in the RTI model based on student need. Beginning with the majority of students, tier one level addresses student absentee issues on a community or school-wide level, including providing additional information to families. The second tier addresses students and the families of students who begin to demonstrate potential behavior concerns (Kearney & Graczyk, 2013). Interventions at the tier two level are supported more individually with a teacher, administrator, or counselor to set up a behavior plan. At tier three, the intervention provided becomes more intense, such as finding alternative school settings or other extreme solutions (Kearney & Graczyk, 2013).

            Family-based interventions attempt to address attendance issues at the familial level and generally fall under tier two or tier three of the RTI model. Some examples of family-based interventions are parenting skills groups, family therapy, interdisciplinary team strategizing meetings, criminal prosecution, and community referrals (Maynard, Kjellstrand, & Thompsonn, 2013). One suggestion made by researchers toward improving school nonattendance has been family therapy (Maynard et al., 2013; Pellegrini, 2007). Community-based interventions are most always used in collaboration with family-based interventions as they tend to support each other. Despite the frequent simultaneous use of family and community-based interventions, there are some community-based interventions that can be effective alone (Maynard et al., 2013; Epstein & Sheldon, 2007; Teasley, 2004). Community-based interventions are used with higher frequency in low-income neighborhoods.

            According to many research, a strong and balanced school-based intervention system addresses student needs and disciplinary actions equally, thereby improving school attendance over time (Teasley, 2004; Freeman, Simonsen, McCoach, Sugai, Lombardi & Horner, 2015; Maynard et al., 2013; Pelligrini, 2007). School-wide interventions are most effective when they are used in partnership with family and community-based interventions, such as tier one in the RTI model (Teasley, 2004; Maynard et al., 2013; Pelligrini, 2007). School-based programs are most effective when it educates teachers about school nonattendance and how teachers can address it within the classroom (Maynard et al., 2013; Kearney & Graczyk, 2013). Individual interventions for school nonattendance are usually assigned to school faculty members as part of a comprehensive school-based approach. As part of the RTI model, individual interventions are generally part of tier two or tier three.

            Other studies found that individual counseling, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, was effective in decreasing absence rates (Kearney & Graczyk, 2013). Consequently, peer or faculty mentors could be an effective intervention aiding in the decrease of school nonattendance according to some researchers, stating that individual interventions can help students address the root of their attendance issues. Becoming aware of the primary issue can assist counselors or other mentors to provide support for those concerns.  Often, the primary issue is a huge component to school nonattendance, and when addressed, decreases absenteeism accordingly (Teasley, 2004).

Future Research

            Currently, data is lacking regarding individual interventions used in the school settings. Research does not have much information about individual intervention methods that can assist absentee students across nonattendance variables. Furthermore, future research that utilizes student-level data has the potential to identify the associations between school organizational effectiveness and individual chronic absenteeism, particularly by controlling for more concrete measures of student characteristics. Additionally, using longitudinal student-level data would allow us to more accurately explore causal relationships between school organizational effectiveness and chronic absenteeism through analysis of change in student absenteeism over time (Lenhoff & Pogodzinski, 2018). It is recommended that future research should collect data on school, family, and community partnership and student attendance for more than two years in order to investigate the long-term impact partnerships have on students’ attendance behaviors (Sheldon & Epstein, 2007).


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