A University of Virginia study found that about 1 in 10 Virginia schoolchildren missed 18 or more days of school in the 2014-2015 school year, offering the first statewide look at a problem that research has shown can derail a child’s education.
The study’s report aims to shine a light on the issue of chronic absenteeism across Virginia. Luke C. Miller, a research assistant professor who co-wrote the report, said he hopes it inspires more research into why students miss class and how to address it.
Educators have long focused on attendance issues, aware that students who miss class can quickly fall behind and have a difficult time catching up. Schools were previously more focused on overall attendance rates, which can mask the fact that some students are consistently missing class.
There has been a renewed focus on addressing chronic absenteeism since the U.S. Education Department recently began tracking the number of students who miss three or more weeks of school. The first figures, released in June, offered a sobering assessment: 6.5 million schoolchildren missed 15 or more days of school during the 2013-2014 school year. The new federal education law also encourages states to track chronic absenteeism in their schools.
While the U-Va. report did not examine race or poverty rates among chronically absent students, national data has found that chronic absenteeism is more acute among African American, Native American, Pacific Islander and Latino students, as well as students with learning disabilities. National studies have found poor, urban districts tend to have high rates of chronic absenteeism, with as much as half of all students considered chronically absent.
Research has linked chronic absenteeism to a bevy of negative outcomes, showing what many would intuit: Students who miss lots of class are more likely to drop out or be held back.
“The importance of daily school attendance to students’ success is borne out by the research,” the authors of the report wrote. “Being absent from school predicts lower test scores, increased likelihood of being retained in grade, and increased risky behaviors.”
The U-Va. researchers found that chronically absent students had lower pass rates on state exams than peers who showed up at school more consistently.
Miller said that finding was expected. But he was surprised to find that the effects of chronic absenteeism appeared to linger: Students who were chronically absent one year but attended school more consistently the next still had lower pass rates than peers who were never chronically absent.
“You see the kids that were chronically absent in prior years underperform students who weren’t,” Miller said.
Miller said Virginia, where about 10 percent of students missed 18 or more days of school during the 2014-2015 academic year, has a rate in line with the national average. About 13 percent of U.S. students missed 15 or more days of school during the 2013-2014 school year. But the rates of absenteeism in Virginia vary widely from district to district and among grade levels.
The report found one in six high-schoolers were chronically absent during the 2014-2015 school year. It also zeroed in on three school districts in Virginia — Petersburg City, Richmond and Norfolk — that have far more absences than the state average.
But the state saw a decline of about 2 percentage points in the number of students who were chronically absent between 2004 and 2015.
Miller said he hopes his report serves as a starting point for discussions about chronic absenteeism for policymakers and educators formulating strategies to address the issue. He said the research has found that low-cost initiatives — such as educating parents on the compounding effects of missing school — have shown to be effective.
“We’re hoping to continue to work with the Virginia Department of Education to continue to develop our understanding in Virginia and to share with other divisions and schools successful strategies that we believe have yielded positive results,” Miller said.