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Report: Early absenteeism leads to achievement gaps later

Colorado has slightly higher student absenteeism rates in the fourth and eighth grades than the nation as a whole, according to a new study that ties chronic absences to achievement gaps.

But the study found Colorado had slightly smaller gaps in scores on a national test between students with high numbers of absences and those without them.

The statistics were part of a report released this week that found that attendance disparities among different kinds of students start as early as preschool and kindergarten and contribute to achievement gaps and dropout rates in later grades.

The role of student health is highlighted in the study, which says, “Many of these absences, especially among our youngest students, are excused and tied directly to health factors: asthma and dental problems, learning disabilities and mental health issues related to trauma and community violence.”

The study, “Mapping the Early Attendance Gap,” was done by two advocacy and research organizations, Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign.

The groups urge that states and districts take a more nuanced view of attendance to ensure that more students spend more time in school. “State leaders can shift the focus — and the accountability metrics — from truancy to chronic absenteeism, a measure of how many students miss 10 percent or more of the school year for any reason. And they can identify and learn from the positive outliers — the schools, districts and communities that improve or maintain high levels of attendance despite challenging conditions,” the report said.

The report combines the findings of other absenteeism research and took a snapshot of the problem based on results from the 2011 and 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress tests in English and math. Those exams are given to a sample of students in each state (about 2,500 in each grade) in fourth and eighth grades. Students who take those exams also are asked how many days they were absent in the prior month.

That review found that 20 percent of both fourth and eighth graders nationwide reported three or more absences in the prior month. The percentages were higher for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and for minority students.

The study also found that higher percentages of students with disabilities were absent three or more days in a month.

Students with higher levels of absences also had lower mean scores on the NAEP assessments.

Here’s a look at score gaps for the nation and Colorado:

Fourth grade: For all students nationwide, students with absence problems had a mean score 12 points lower than other students. For Colorado the gap was 10 points. The gap was nine points for students who were eligible for subsidized meals and eight points for non-eligible students.

Eighth grade: For all students nationwide, students with absence problems had a mean score 18 points lower than other students. For Colorado the gap was 17 points. The gap was 14 points for students who were eligible for subsidized meals and 13 points for non-eligible students.

“Analysis shows that missing three or more days in the prior month (high-absenteeism) is associated with lower test scores for students in every state and city tested,” the study said. See the report’s state-by-state charts here.

The report sums up its finding in this way: “Across the country, an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students are missing nearly a month of school [a year] and suffering academically for it.

“The problem starts early: At least 10 percent of kindergartners and first graders miss that much school, absences that can stall their progress in reading and deny them an equal opportunity to learn. Chronic absence flares again in middle and high school, when it becomes an early warning sign that students will drop out. Children from low-income families and communities of color, and those with disabilities are disproportionately affected.”

As required by federal law, the state Department of Education compiles attendance data submitted by school districts.

For the 2013-14 school year, Colorado had an attendance rate of 93.5 percent. The truancy rate, defined as unexcused absences, was 2.2 percent. While the state breaks out attendance by school, it doesn’t report absenteeism by grade or by disaggregated student groups. Get links to CDE truancy rate data here.

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