By Rachel Hammond
In the 2015-2016 school year, 11.2% of elementary school students in North Carolina were chronically absent, missing 18 or more days of school. This number is far too high. According to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, students who are chronically absent in their early years of schooling consistently score lower on math and reading tests, are more likely to be retained in grade, and are less likely to complete high school compared to their peers who are not chronically absent. Despite the impact of regular attendance on academic performance, North Carolina is not addressing the pressing issue of chronic absences. The North Carolina State Board of Education (NCSBE) should develop a policy to track chronically absent students and reduce absentee rates by the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.
Very few steps have been taken to date: Governor Roy Cooper has shown commitment to this issue, declaring September to be “Attendance Awareness Month,” and the NCSBE established an official definition in 2018 to define what it means for a student to be chronically absent. Other than that, we have no plan. Following the passage of the national Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, states were required to track five indicators, four of which were academic indicators set nationally and one that states were to choose for themselves. 37 states adopted measures of chronic absenteeism as their fifth indicator. North Carolina is one of the thirteen states that did not, choosing instead to measure growth in test scores.
Tracking test scores is important as well, but we will not see improvements in scores if our children continue to miss so many days of school. Specifically, the NC Early Childhood Foundation found that students who were chronically absent through second grade scored, on average, 30.2% lower on third grade reading tests than students with regular attendance. Part of this is due to other factors correlated with being chronically absent, such as low socioeconomic status. By addressing attendance, the NCSBE can demonstrate its commitment to low income students, a group who already faces high barriers to education, and take an important step towards meeting their goal of eliminating opportunity gaps – or disparities in academic outcomes between low-income students and their higher income peers – by 2025.
Fortunately, schools and districts across the country, including in North Carolina, have had success in improving attendance through minor interventions. Prospect Elementary School in Union County, NC was able to cut their chronic absence rate in half over four years by implementing a system that involved daily attendance reports to the principal, phone calls to the homes of absent students, and reward ceremonies each period for students with perfect attendance. These are all relatively inexpensive options that yield strong results – and the costs of not intervening are much higher. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers, and the average high school dropout will cost taxpayers about $292,000 over their lifetime. Ignoring chronically absent elementary school students does a disservice to all North Carolinians.
The fact that more than one in nine elementary school children in North Carolina are chronically absent each school year is unacceptable. Our public schools need to ensure children are meeting grade-level milestones and maintaining a path to graduate from high school, one of the most powerful predictors of economic success in adulthood. The state’s lack of a comprehensive plan to address chronic absenteeism, or to even establish reasonable targets for the absenteeism rate, is unacceptable and is failing our children. The NCSBE must create a policy to track our chronically absent elementary school students and reduce absenteeism rates to ensure all students have the resources they need to succeed.
Rachel Hammond is a first-year MPP student at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.