Fifth-grader Aliric Johnson, left, and Javion Wright hope their raffle numbers get picked during a daily morning raffle, a game that is part of a broader effort to encourage attendance at Simon Elementary in D.C. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Recent battles in the edu-policy world have centered on standardized testing, teacher tenure, charter schools, vouchers and Common Core state standards. But debates over how to address poor student attendance — which is directly linked to low achievement and high dropout rates — have generated much less heat and light.

And that’s a mistake, according to the Center for American Progress, which is seeking to highlight truancy as an issue that deserves far more attention than it traditionally gets.

“Education has long been seen as the means to prosperity, but that only happens if students attend school regularly,” says a report that CAP, a left-leaning think tank that is associated with the Obama administration, released Tuesday.

[Truancy, absenteeism a chronic problem in D.C. schools]

The report comes as Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that advocates for effective attendance policies, is promoting September as “Attendance Awareness Month” — a chance for school to help parents understand the direct link between chronic absence, low achievement and dropping out of high school.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the size of the challenge because every state has a different definition of truancy and chronic absenteeism, and public data reporting is inconsistent. But it’s clear that attendance no small problem: An estimated 5 to 7.5 million of the nation’s 50 million students are chronically absent, meaning that they miss 20 days of class, or more than 10 percent of the school year.

Attendance problems are not confined to older teens skipping class. Younger children — as young as preschool — also miss school at high rates, often because of family instability or other factors out of their control.

Overwhelmed schools often struggle to deal with those problems, which have their roots far outside the four walls of the classroom. But the academic impacts of missed school are clear, whether absences are excused or unexcused.

Research has shown that when kindergartners and first-graders are chronically absent, they are less likely to read on grade level, whether the absences are excused or unexcused. A student’s attendance record as early as sixth grade is a powerful predictor of whether that student will eventually graduate from high school.

Many school districts and states have taken a punitive approach to dealing with truancy. Until recently, for example, Los Angeles Unified School District issued students $250 tickets for truancy violations.

[Parents say Virginia district reaching too far to stop school tardies]

CAP advocates for doing away with such tactics: Punishing kids for truancy often shunts them into the criminal justice system and doesn’t help persuade them to come to school, the think tank says, echoing an argument previously made by many social-justice organizations.
Instead, school districts should make sure parents understand why attendance matters, even for the youngest students. And districts should pair wrap-around social services — such as social workers and counselors who can help address the root causes of absenteeism — with early warning systems that use attendance data to flag young students who are at risk of becoming chronically truant.
That basic approach that has shown great promise in cities such as New York and Hartford, Conn.

“It’s important to keep in mind that this is preventable,” said Tiffany Miller, a co-author of CAP’s report.