New Data from U.S. Department of Education Show Nearly One-Quarter of Washington’s K-12 Students Chronically Absent

If, as has been said, 80 percent of success is showing up, too many Washington students are not meeting the standard, according to new data (summary report here)  from the U.S. Department of Education. The Associated Press reports about one-quarter of Washington students are chronically absent. (State-by-state rankings here.)

The government is out with discouraging new figures on how many students are habitually missing school — and an AP analysis finds the problem is particularly acute in Washington, D.C., where nearly a third of students in the nation’s capital were absent 15 days or more in a single school year.

Washington state and Alaska weren’t that far behind, with absentee rates hovering around a quarter of students with that level of absences.

The significance is obvious:

The national average in the 2013-2014 school year was 13 percent, more than 6.5 million students, a number that Bob Balfanz, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Everyone Graduates Center, called disturbing.

“If you’re not there, you don’t learn, and then you fall behind, you don’t pass your classes, you don’t get the credits in high school and that’s what leads to dropping out,” Balfanz said in an interview.

The report doesn’t explain why Washington is an outlier, but it’s not altogether surprising. The Achieve (education) update to our Opportunity Washington Scorecard shows Washington ranks 38th in high school graduation rate, with just 78 percent of the Class of 2014 graduating on time. That suggests the importance of “showing up.” And as we wrote in our foundation report, improving those numbers is a high priority for the state.

Washington’s four-year high school graduation rate in 2013 (for students who began ninth grade in 2009-10) was 76.0 percent. The Washington State Board of Education has established a goal of increasing that number to 89 percent by the end of this decade. The state must meet or exceed this objective to become one of the top 10 states for high school graduation.


Education Week  provides an analogy for the 6.5 million chronically absent students.

To put that in perspective, imagine if the 34 largest school districts in the country in 2013—including New York City and Los Angeles, Jefferson County, Ky., and the entire state of Hawaii—simply shut down for three weeks of the school year.

Absenteeism is just one element of the report. The press release accompanying the data release provides an extensive national overview finding persistent performance and opportunity disparities. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) today unveiled new data from the 2013-2014 school year showing gaps that still remain too wide in key areas affecting educational equity and opportunity for students, including incidents of discipline, restraint and seclusion, access to courses and programs that lead to college and career readiness, teacher equity, rates of retention, and access to early learning.

Overall, the data reinforce our earlier observation that efforts must continue to close the opportunity gaps. U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. told reporters

“Our systemic failure to educate some groups of children as well as others tears at the moral fabric of the nation.”

And he called the chronic absenteeism “an urgent call for action.” 

We agree.