Managing chronic absenteeism is essential to ensuring academic success for all students, but doing so requires robust data tracking.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress’ bipartisan revamp of the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, mandates that all schools develop new accountability standards focused on critical performance indicators in five areas: proficiency in reading and math, high school graduation rates, English language proficiency, student growth throughout elementary and middle school, and one additional “indicator of school quality or success.”

States have been given a great deal of latitude to determine the final, “non-academic” indicator of school quality, a measure meant to inspire educators to innovate new ways of measuring and then improving performance. But a significant majority of states — 36 and the District of Columbia — have chosen to hone in on “chronic absenteeism.”

The Price of Chronic Absenteeism

Though there are slight variations from state to state, generally speaking, a student is considered chronically absent if they miss at least 10% of school days throughout the year for any reason. This includes both excused and unexcused absences, school-mandated absences related to suspensions, and so on.

According to recent research conducted by FutureEd, an education policy think tank at Georgetown University, more than seven million students nationwide miss at least three weeks of school every year. Consequently, around one-fifth of U.S. public schools are dealing with chronic absenteeism rates above 20%, and at least half of public schools report chronic absenteeism rates above 10%.

It isn’t entirely surprising that students who don’t show up to class tend to struggle to keep pace with their peers, but some of the research on the severity of this achievement gap is remarkable. Almost across the board, chronic absenteeism is strongly correlated with weaker reading skills, lower information retention rates, and lagging social skill development.

A recent study in California public schools put this achievement gap in stark relief, finding that a mere 17% of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were reading at grade level by third grade, compared to 64% of students who attended school regularly.

The disparity only worsens as students get older. Research indicates that students who missed three or more school days in the month prior to taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress scored 12 to 18 points lower than the average student. Similarly, students who are chronically absent for even a single year between eighth and twelfth grade are up to 7.4 times more likely to drop out of high school than their classmates.

Reconsidering Attendance Management

Unfortunately, despite the widespread adoption of chronic absenteeism as “the fifth performance indicator,” many school districts continue to struggle with collecting and using this information in efficient, productive ways.

Traditionally, schools have focused their efforts on monitoring average daily attendance (ADA), which provides a big-picture overview of how many students are coming to school each day. Most districts assume that 95% ADA amounts to fairly healthy district-wide attendance, but as a study from Attendance Works points out, as much as 30% of a student population could be chronically absent before a school’s ADA drops below 95%.

To more accurately reflect their problems with chronic absenteeism, school districts must improve the way they manage their attendance data. “[Districts] will need to know how many, and which, students are chronically absent,” the study explains. “This requires comparing the number of days each student attends school with the number of days the student is enrolled. At minimum, such measures should be incorporated into school data systems at the district and state levels.”

Choosing the Right Data Partner

Maintaining such detailed, student-specific records can be a challenge for school districts accustomed to more general attendance tracking. This is where an experienced educational data partner like Vinson Consulting Group comes into play.

Our comprehensive consulting services and CheckPoint EMIS platform help school districts keep track of all their vital data — including attendance data — and derive insights from the information at their disposal.

As the Department of Education makes clear, “When our teachers, principals, policymakers, and others have access to robust data on the extent and nature of chronic absenteeism, we are all in a better position to provide students with the support they need to stem this crisis in our schools.” Vinson can be a critical component of this solution, and will help any school district ensure that their most at-risk students are getting everything they need to succeed.