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On August 30, Governor Cooper declared September to be attendance awareness month. The declaration comes as districts and states across the country are focusing more on attendance as both an early warning signal and a key indicator for measures such as third grade reading proficiency and high school graduation. 

Schools have collected attendance data for years, but until recently that data was primarily used by teachers and principals to assign grades, determine who would be promoted to the next grade, and on occasion refer students and families to truancy court. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, states are now required to track and report the number of students who are chronically absent, which the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) defines as students having missed 15 or more days over the course of the school year.

The map below, courtesy of The 74 Million, compares statewide chronic absence rates for the 2015-2016 school year. In North Carolina, 14.8 percent of all students were considered chronically absent, slightly lower than the national rate of 15.5 percent. Of the 50 states, North Dakota had the lowest chronic absence rate at 9.6 percent and Maryland had the highest at 29.1 percent. In the Southeast, South Carolina had the lowest rate at 13.6 percent and West Virginia had the highest at 19.9 percent.

 

Statewide averages mask important differences, however. Earlier this month, Brookings Institute released an interactive map of chronic absence rates by state, district, and school. The map also allows for comparison between chronic absence rates for different groups of students and by school type (elementary, middle, or high).

One interesting finding is the difference in chronic absence rates by school type. The national chronic absence rate for elementary schools is 12.7 percent compared to 14.1 percent for middle schools and 21.1 percent for high schools. There is also a difference, although less pronounced, between the rates for rural, urban, and suburban schools. Nationally, the chronic absence rate for rural schools is 14.5 percent compared to 14.4 percent for suburban schools and 17.6 percent for urban schools.

Looking at the data by race and ethnicity also reveals disparities. Nationally, 8.3 percent of Asian students, 14.2 percent of white students, 19.7 percent of black students, 22.1 percent of Hispanic students, and 25.2 percent of American Indian students were chronically absent in 2015-2016.

While North Carolina’s statewide chronic absence rate falls below the national rate, the chronic absence rate by district ranges from a low of 0.13 percent in Johnston County to a high of 26 percent in Hertford County. The map below shows the chronic absence rate by county using the Office of Civil Rights 2015-2016 data.

Many of the same disparities between schools and students exist in North Carolina as they do in the United States as a whole. In North Carolina, the chronic absence rate is 11.2 percent for elementary schools, 14.4 percent for middle schools, and 21.2 percent for high schools. Both rural and city schools in the state have higher chronic absence rates at 15.1 percent than suburban schools at 13.4 percent. 

Racial and ethnic gaps persist in North Carolina as well. Asian students have the lowest chronic absence rate at 8.2 percent, followed by white students at 14.1 percent, black students at 16.3 percent, Hispanic students at 18.2 percent, and American Indian students at 27.1 percent. With the exception of the American Indian-white gap, the gaps between black and white students and Hispanic and white students are smaller than the national gaps.

The data can be broken down further to view the chronic absence rates at all public schools in North Carolina, also using 2015-2016 data from the Office of Civil Rights.

 

In addition to requiring states to track chronic absence rates, ESSA also allows states to include chronic absenteeism in their federal accountability plans. So far, 36 states and the District of Columbia have included chronic absence rates in their plans submitted to the Department of Education. The map below, courtesy of The 74 Million, shows which states have chronic absence rates in their plans. North Carolina is not one of the 36.

 

Despite the inclusion of chronic absence rates in states’ ESSA plans, it remains unclear whether this will make any difference. In a review of state ESSA plans and interviews with experts, The 74 Million found “the bulk of states failed to take full advantage of the law’s unique flexibility, experts said, instead providing confusing, bare-bones outlines for how they will define and report [chronic absence] across schools.” 

Experts caution against holding students’ accountable for chronic absence rates both because attendance rates are easily manipulable and because it’s not always in our best interest to encourage 100 percent attendance. In an interview earlier this year, Ethan Hutt, a nationally-renowned scholar and co-editor of a forthcoming book on chronic absenteeism, argued, “There are some instances where you might not want a child in your school. If that child has lice or meningitis or there’s an outbreak, you don’t want that child in school. If the road conditions are unsafe, you don’t want school buses on the roads.”

Furthermore, Hutt argued that penalizing schools and districts for chronic absence rates may end up creating perverse incentives, especially because attendance rates are so hard for the state or federal government to verify. “We know from our experience with No Child Left Behind that if you ask unreasonable things of schools, the result will be they will game your system. You will take something that is commonsense like we want students to learn and do well on their tests, and you will create perverse incentives.”

North Carolina did not include chronic absence in its ESSA plan. Just last February, the North Carolina State Board of Education adopted a statewide definition of chronic absence, defining a “Student Chronic Absentee” as any student who is enrolled for at least 10 school days during the year and has missed 10 percent or more of the school days that the student has been enrolled, regardless if the absences are excused or unexcused. The General Assembly also passed a bill in 2017 encouraging districts to start attendance recognition programs.

Beyond these measures, however, North Carolina does not have a statewide approach to addressing chronic absenteeism. A report from the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, updated in 2018, finds North Carolina’s statewide response lacking. The report details how North Carolina does not have a state-level public awareness campaign on attendance, does not release chronic absence data on an annual basis, and does not define and support districts with high chronic absence rates, among other factors. The report ends with recommendations for action to address these deficiencies.

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.