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New report shows 64,000 students chronically absent in NC elementary schools

The following is a press release from the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation

More than 64,000 of North Carolina’s youngest students were chronically absent from school during the 2015-16 school year, according to a report released today by the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF). Chronic absence has been shown to impact reading proficiency at third grade, so the report analyzes absence data in North Carolina schools that have preschool, kindergarten, first, second and/or third grade classrooms. Eleven percent (11%) of children in those schools were found to be chronically absent in 2015-16. Chronic absence was defined as missing 15 days or more of the school year for this data collection, which was managed by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. 

The report – AttendaNCe Counts: What North Carolina School Districts are Doing to Reduce Chronic Absence –provides results of a self-assessment that asked school districts to share which of their attendance policies and practices are strong, and where there are opportunities for improvement. The assessment responses are the self-reported impressions of school district superintendent office staff. Fifty-five out of 115 school districts responded.

The survey prompted districts to consider their policies and practices in four areas:

  • Actionable Data assesses the effectiveness of attendance data collection, reporting, analysis and use by districts, schools and families.
  • Positive Engagement measures the degree to which school districts use positive messaging and engagement to educate families and other stakeholders about regular attendance and intervene promptly when necessary.
  • Shared Accountability asks whether strategic plans are in place around regular attendance at the community, district, school and individual student levels.
  • Strategic Partnerships assesses how school districts collaborate with community partners to better understand and address chronic absence.

The survey is based on a school district self-assessment developed by Attendance Works, a national organization that aims to advance student success and reduce equity gaps by reducing chronic absence. 

Key findings of the report include: 

  • Nearly one in eight young students in North Carolina misses more than 15 days of school every year – that’s almost two days each month, and research shows that is enough to impact learning. 
  • Chronic absence rates vary significantly by school district across North Carolina. In 2015-2016, nearly three out of every four Local Education Agencies in North Carolina reported from five to 15 percent of their elementary school students as chronically absent. 
  • Chronically absent students are found in every type of community in the state—urban, suburban, and rural.
  • While districts feel fairly confident about their accuracy of their attendance data, more than a third indicated they have room for improvement in analyzing and using the data.
  • About half of the responding districts report that they are strong at messaging about the importance of regular attendance and reaching out to families when signs of chronic absence are detected. 
  • Districts are less confident about their accountability around chronic absence, including setting attendance goals and creating intentional improvement plans for schools—and individual students—who are chronically absent.
  • Of the four areas surveyed, districts reported that they were weakest in partnering with local community service providers to address chronic absence. This suggests that addressing chronic absence is an area of opportunity for community partners looking to engage with local schools.
  • Because school districts can set their own attendance policies and practices in North Carolina, each district can take action by creating strategies that address their particular causes of chronic absence.
  • Two case studies – one in Union County and another in Winston Salem/Forsyth County Schools – highlight that districts and schools can reduce chronic absence by collecting data, identifying the local causes of chronic absence and putting intentional strategies in place to address those causes.  

Student health problems, as well as a lack of preventative care, are leading contributors to chronic absence, including physical, mental, behavioral, vision, dental, social and emotional health.  Other causes of chronic absence include a child’s environment, such as housing and food insecurity, and school factors, such as safety, relationships with teachers and bullying. 

Regular school attendance in the early years is important to put children on the pathway to becoming proficient readers. Chronic absence in kindergarten is associated with lower levels of literacy in the first grade and lower likelihood of reading proficiency by the end of third grade, when children are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn. In North Carolina, only 39% of fourth graders and 24% of students from economically disadvantaged families scored at or above reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2017. 

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia included chronic absence as a metric in their Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) state plan. North Carolina did not. However, North Carolina’s leaders have begun paying attention to chronic absence. In 2017, the NC Board of Education passed the state’s first statewide, standardized definition of chronic absence—missing 10 percent of enrolled days during the school year. The NC General Assembly passed a law in 2017 encouraging school districts to adopt student attendance recognition programs to bring focus to the issue of chronic absence. Discussions have begun about including chronic absence in the State Board of Education strategic plan and in the NC School Report Cards as an accountability metric. Regular attendance is one of three pillars of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and one of three areas of focus for the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative. Both efforts aim to improve reading proficiency by the end of third grade. 

NCECF is also supporting national Attendance Awareness Month in September with a new AttendaNCe Counts Community Toolkit. It includes information on chronic absence by school district and communication tools to support communities in highlighting the importance of regular attendance in the early grades. 

Governor Cooper has declared September 2018 as Attendance Awareness Month. The Proclamation can be found here: 

The report – AttendaNCe Counts: What North Carolina School Districts are Doing to Reduce Chronic Absence – can be found here: 

The NCECF AttendaNCe Counts Community Toolkit can be found here:   

More information about chronic absence in North Carolina can be found here: 

About the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation 

NCECF is the state’s only organization focused exclusively on children from birth through age eight—the most rapid period of development in human life. It promotes public understanding, spearheads collaboration and advances policy to achieve its vision that each North Carolina child has a strong foundation for lifelong health, education and well-being supported by a premiere birth-to-age-eight system. Learn more at 

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Follow us on Twitter at @ncecf and @tracyzimmerman. 

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About the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

Launched in 2010, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a collaborative effort of more than 380 communities, representing 44 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Canada.  The Campaign works to ensure that many more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, career and active citizenship. Since 2015, the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation has led the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in North Carolina.  To learn more, visit and follow the movement on Twitter @readingby3rd.


EdNC staff reporting relies on staff, interns, and columnists.