More than 16 percent of students in Washington are chronically absent from school, which can hinder learning for an entire classroom. Rates here are much higher than average, and state officials say they are confronting the problem.

Share story

Nearly 17 percent of students in Washington are chronically absent from school, meaning that each misses at least 18 days of instruction. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how seriously that could hinder learning.

A new national report analyzing attendance rates across the country goes even further, noting that in 28 percent of Washington schools almost a third of all students are missing weeks of classwork, a rate that ranks as second-worst in the nation, after Alaska.

And when large numbers of students miss lessons, it affects more than their own performance because high levels of “churn” make it “almost impossible for even a very good teacher to figure out how to move forward,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of the national nonprofit Attendance Works.

This is particularly true for science labs and other lessons that span more than one day.

“In Washington, that is quite a challenge,” Chang said.

The numbers come from a national report, “Portraits of Change.” Attendance Works released the findings last week after analyzing federal data from the 2013-14 school year, the most recent full set available.

Though the numbers are 4 years old, education officials in Olympia do not dispute the gist: chronic absenteeism is a major problem in Washington, they said, and only recently has this come to light.

“People didn’t realize it was an issue, so it was like, ‘Wow,’ ” said Dixie Grunenfelder, who oversees student support at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We didn’t realize we were worse than other states. It was kind of a new view.”

Some individual districts, however, jumped on this long ago and have begun to make real headway, she said, citing an emphasis on family engagement in the Vancouver, Washington, schools that has resulted in years of steadily improving numbers.

Public schools in Tacoma also are working to boost attendance by sending home “nudge” letters when students miss too many days of school.

The reasons for chronic absence — which includes truancy, out-of-school suspensions and excused time away — range from bullying to health problems, transportation difficulties and the belief, particularly among parents of young students, that missing weeks of kindergarten won’t have much effect on future learning. (Forty-six percent of elementary schools here report high or extremely high rates of absenteeism among all students.)

Chang, of Attendance Works, disputes this assertion, pointing out that math, for instance, depends on steadily building skills.

“If you miss even a couple of days of algebra a month, you’re just not going to pass your classes,” she said, suggesting that low attendance could be a major driver behind Washington’s lagging graduation rates.

Ironically, the numbers may look worse here because educators are more faithfully recording attendance, Chang said, meaning that other regions have been undercounting. (Half of all states report that only 8 percent of their schools have high absenteeism.)

Either way, chronic rates suggest a systemic problem — such as a lack of transportation in rural areas — rather than one that can be fixed by focusing on individual kids.

“At high levels, it’s really a red alert that other agencies must be part of the solution,” Chang said. “This is not going to be solved by schools alone.”