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In 2011, the Georgia Department of Education crunched the numbers to determine what impact student absences were having on student performance in the early grades and high school graduation rates. The findings of this study sparked statewide collaborations aimed at ensuring students are in school – and have informed the Get Georgia Reading Campaign’s approach to increasing attendance.

Using student-level data to measure the impact of increased attendance on academic achievement, as measured by the state’s Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), the study found a strong connection between increased absences and lower scores. The projected number of students who might have passed the subject-specific CRCT tests had they increased their own attendance by 3 percent – 5 days in a traditional 180 academic calendar – was noteworthy. More than 10,000 additional students could have passed the reading test while more than 30,000 more students could have passed the math test. Increasing the attendance had the largest effect on students who had missed between five and 10 days of school, rather than the chronic truants.

This study dispelled several common myths about student attendance:

  • Myth 1: Missing a few days of school each year is normal and doesn’t matter much.Actually, data indicate that missing more than five days of school each year impacts student academic performance and starts shaping attitudes about school. Excused and unexcused absences have a similar impact on student performance. In addition, the study found that, from sixth grade through ninth grade, student attendance is a better predictor of dropping out than standardized test scores.
  •  Myth 2: We don’t need to worry about attendance in elementary school.While absenteeism is more widespread in middle and high school, it still affects a vast number of younger students. Data show that standardized test scores in elementary school are significantly affected by students’ attendance patterns, to the point that the number of absences is related to the student’s chances of meeting or exceeding standards on the CRCT. Also, the attendance patterns established in elementary school often carry over into middle and high school where they can have a dramatic impact on graduation.
  • Myth 3: Most schools already closely monitor student absences.Even when teachers take roll daily, the data they collect is not typically analyzed to reveal absence patterns. And, when schools do measure school-wide attendance, they track truancy which does not capture excused absences. When schools and school districts do compile all absences – including excused, unexcused and suspensions – they are often surprised at how many students are missing 10 days or more each school year.
  • Myth 4: Because families are ultimately responsible for children getting to school, there is not much that schools can do to improve attendance.Schools and school districts that have made a concentrated, systemic review of student absences have developed effective strategies. When schools and school districts review student absences, they can identify which students are absent (excused and unexcused), look for patterns and locations and possible related causes, such as school climate factors, environmental factors, health factors, transportation, etc. Some schools and school districts that reviewed student discipline policies, procedures, and discipline data and subsequently implemented an evidence-based learning climate strategy like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), have been able to significantly reduce out of school suspensions. Many of these schools and school districts that improved school climate also saw reductions in negative peer interaction issues, such as bullying, that affect student attendance.

— Sarah Torian