Nearly 50 percent of all chronically absent students live in just 4 percent of U.S. school districts nationwide, according to a new analysis.
Nine out of 10 school districts have some students who are chronically absent — meaning they’ve missed 15 or more days in a single school year, according to a new analysis of federal data.
At the same time, nearly half the 6.5 million students who were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year attend just 4 percent of the nation’s school districts.
Nearly every district in the Puget Sound region falls into that 4 percent.
The analysis, the first of its kind from new data from the U.S. Department of Education, signals a need for broad outreach as well as targeted efforts in districts most affected by chronic absenteeism, researchers said.
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“It means quite a small subset of schools face a much-higher degree of concentration or number of chronically absent kids than anyone else,” said Robert Balfanz, one of the researchers, who works at Johns Hopkins University and leads the Everyone Graduates Center.
The national average for chronically absent students in 2013-14 was 13 percent. In Washington state, the average was nearly 25 percent, the second-highest rate in the U.S., behind Washington, D.C.
Washington education officials questioned the rates when the federal education department released the data in June, saying state data is more accurate. The state figures showed that nearly 15 percent of Washington students were chronically absent. The state doesn’t consider students chronically absent until they have missed 18 days, which is 10 percent of the school year.
The researchers said they used 15 days as a midpoint for districts that might have a shorter year or year-round school.
Washington state also considers students absent whenever they’re out of the classroom, regardless of the reason. Other states use different criteria.
Overall, Balfanz said the researchers were surprised to find the rates were so highly concentrated.
They expected to find a lot of chronic absenteeism in urban districts with large populations of low-income students, but they were surprised to find high rates in a number of small- or medium-sized districts in postindustrial cities, like Albany, N.Y.
They were also initially surprised to find that some suburban, affluent districts were among the 4 percent. And in rural districts, while the number of students chronically absent isn’t high, the rate is. In the South Whidbey School District, for example, 613 students were chronically absent in 2013-14, compared with 9,566 in Seattle Public Schools. However, South Whidbey only has about 1,500 students, so the absence rate was 42 percent, according to the federal definition. Seattle’s was 19 percent.
The researchers say that absences — for any reason — can affect student achievement.
“All the best instruction in classrooms doesn’t make a difference if kids aren’t there to benefit from it,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, an organization that pushes for better policies and practices to improve school attendance.