One in six students in Washington were chronically absent in 2015-16, and the rates are much higher for children who live in poverty, don’t have stable housing and identify as American Indian/Alaskan Native.
More than 193,000 students attending Washington public schools were chronically absent last school year, according to data released Thursday from the state superintendent’s office, and research shows that’s a strong signal they may not graduate on time,
That number represents 16.7 percent of the state’s students who, excused or not, missed 18 or more school days in 2015-16. That’s up slightly from 16.1 percent in 2013 and 16.4 percent in 2015.
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.
This is the second year the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction released the absenteeism data for all 295 school districts in Washington.
“I certainly hope people don’t use this to shame and blame. It’s really a learning tool,” said Krissy Johnson, a prevention and intervention supervisor with OSPI.
“I hope people use it so say, ‘Hey, my district’s struggling with this. Let’s find another district that’s doing well and see what they’re doing,’ ” she added.
On Thursday, OSPI also for the first time reported chronic absenteeism data for homeless students, a full third of whom were chronically absent last year. That’s double the average rate for all students in Washington.
About 22 percent of low-income students were chronically absent, compared with 11 percent for their non-low-income peers.
Among racial groups, American Indian and Alaskan Native students had the highest rate of chronic absenteeism, at 33 percent, followed by 27 percent for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. Black and Latino students were at 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively, while white students posted a rate of 15 percent.
Asian students had the lowest, at 10 percent.
“Poverty has a compounding effect across all racial subgroups,” said Dixie Grunenfelder, secondary education director for OSPI.
Last year, OSPI also started examining districts that have lower absenteeism rates than the state average and smaller gaps between different groups of students.
The agency Thursday started sharing what seems to be working in those places.
In some of those districts, said OSPI’s Johnson, central administrators regularly provided detailed attendance data to every school. Teachers, office secretaries and even bus drivers could then offer support to students with more absences.
In some schools, teachers made personal phone calls to parents after just one absence. And, in one district, staff sent postcards to let students know they were missed.
“One thing we heard over and over is there had to be this shift in thinking about attendance from this compliance, punitive mindset to a kind of warm, welcoming, ‘we want you here and miss you when you’re gone’ approach,” Johnson said. “It’s about reaching out, instead of blaming families and kids.”
And a growing body of research suggests that missing even a few days of school each month can have big consequences.
In elementary school, students with a history of poor attendance tend to fall behind their peers in third-grade reading. By middle and high school, they also are more likely to fail courses and are less likely to graduate on time, if at all.
“It may seem silly to say, but what we know is that students have a much better chance of learning if they’re actually in school,” Johnson said.
The state now plans to include chronic absenteeism in its school accountability system.