Superintendent of Public Instruction releases absenteeism report: 16.7% chronically absent, up slightly from prior years

Too many Washington students are missing too much school.

That’s the takeaway from a new report on student attendance and absenteeism from the Office of the Superintendent of Public instruction. The OSPI press release states the problem well: 

For the 2015-16 school year, an average of 16.7 percent of students across the state were chronically absent, which is a 0.7 percent increase from the 2014-15 school year.

“Chronically absent” is defined as a student missing 10 percent or more of their school days, equaling 18 days in a year or two days per month. Students who are chronically absent do not perform as well as their peers who show up, and the linkage begins as early as kindergarten.

Students who are chronically absent in kindergarten are considerably less likely to read be able to read at grade-level by third grade. On the same note, chronically absent ninth graders are much more likely to fail at least one core course (math, English, or science). In fact, attendance and failing a core course in the ninth grade are two of the strongest predictors of whether or not a student graduates high school.

“About 21 percent of our students are not graduating high school, and absenteeism plays a huge role in that,” said Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The release notes that Washington recently was cited by the U.S. Department of Education has having the second worst absenteeism problem in the nation. We wrote about that study last year (here, here and here).

At the time, there was some dispute about the numbers, as the state and the feds use different metrics in their assessment. The Seattle Times reported the key difference: While Washington uses an 18-day cutoff (noted in the press release above), the feds make the cutoff at 15 days. As well, as OSPI officials said last year, there are likely discrepancies in the way states and school districts keep and report their data.

Regardless, this new report from OSPI is a timely reminder of a problem to be solved. The department can be commended for its transparency. The district-by-district analysis is posted on the OSPI website, along with other data. OSPI reports it’s taking steps to reduce absenteeism:

During the last year, OSPI has interviewed districts that have been successful in lowering absenteeism rates. Most of these districts are providing a “multi-tiered system of supports,” which is a framework that aligns both academic and non-academic supports with the students who need them most.  

The districts with low absenteeism rates are providing supports by:

  • using data to catch absences early before they add up;
  • building positive relationships with families and students and engaging them early and often;
  • clearly communicating the school’s attendance expectations;
  • creating community partnerships; and
  • raising awareness of the impacts of chronic absenteeism.

The Associated Press reports on the new release.

While the new data show regular attendance is an issue in all groups of students, chronic absenteeism rates are particularly high for children who live in poverty, are homeless or identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native…

As OSPI points out, there is a strong correlation between absenteeism and failure to graduate from high school. Our new Opportunity Scorecard confirms Washington’s low graduation rate.

Our state drops one spot to 22 in the ACHIEVE rankings after accounting for updated high school graduation rate data. Washington’s graduation rate has increased consistently in recent years, rising to 78.2 percent in 2015, however, it still ranked among the 10 worst states in that category. To crack the top 10, Washington would have needed a graduation rate of 87.8 percent or higher.

Reducing absenteeism must be an urgent priority for policymakers. We are encouraged by the steps being taken to address the problem.