Key facts about student absenteeism

  • In 2015, about one-fifth of students in grades four and eight reported missing three or more days of school in the past month (19 percent).
  • The percentage of fourth- and eighth-grade students who reported missing three or more days of school in the past month changed only marginally from 1994 to 2015.
  • However, the proportion of Hispanic and Asian eighth-grade students who reported missing three or more days of school in the past month declined by 7 and 10 percentage points, respectively, from 1994 to 2015.

Why student absenteeism matters

Attendance is an important factor in school success among children and youth. Studies show that better attendance is related to higher academic achievement for students of all backgrounds, but particularly for children with lower socioeconomic status.[1],[2] Beginning in kindergarten, students who attend school regularly score higher on tests than their peers who are frequently absent.[3]

Chronic truancy (frequent unexcused absence) is a strong predictor of undesirable outcomes in adolescence, including academic failure, dropping out of school, substance abuse, gang involvement, and criminal activity.[4],[5] However, chronic absence (regardless of reason) is increasingly identified as an important early warning sign that a student is at risk for school failure and early dropout. Chronic absenteeism is usually defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. Unfortunately, few school districts currently have the capacity to analyze attendance data to identify those students who are chronically absent.[6]

Many factors can contribute to student absenteeism. Family health or financial concerns, poor school climate, drug and alcohol use, transportation problems, and differing community attitudes toward education are among the conditions often associated with a child’s frequent absence from school.[7]

Analysis and figures based on most recently available data. Data last updated December 2015. 

Trends in student absenteeism

From 1994 to 2005, there was no significant change in the percentage of fourth-grade students who reported being absent from school for three or more days in the last month (18 percent in 1994 and 19 percent in 2015). However, among eighth-grade students this percentage declined slightly, from 22 percent in 1994 to 19 percent in 2015.

The percentage of eighth-grade black and Hispanic students who reported missing three or more days of school decreased significantly from 1994 to 2015 (from 27 percent for each group in 1994, to 23 and 20 percent, respectively, in 2015). (Appendix 2) Attendance among fourth-grade students in these groups remained relatively stable from 1994 to 2015. (Appendix 1)

Differences by race/Hispanic origin[8]

In 2015, both fourth- and eighth-grade American Indian students were more likely than black, Hispanic, and white students to report missing three or more days of school in the last month (28 versus 23, 21, and 18 percent, respectively, in fourth grade; and 29 versus 23, 21, and 18 percent, respectively, in eighth grade). At both grade levels, Asian/Pacific Islander students were the least likely to have missed three or more days in the past month (14 percent in fourth grade and 11 percent in eighth grade).

Differences by disability status

Students classified as having a disability are more likely than students without a disability to have missed three or more school days within the past month. In 2015, 26 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders with a disability reported missing three or more school days, compared with 18 percent of students without a disability.

Differences by school-wide percentage of students
eligible for free or reduced price lunch

Students attending schools where more than 50 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch (a proxy for community poverty) are more likely to report missing three or more days of school than students who attend schools with an eligibility rate of 10 percent or lower. In 2015, 23 percent of eighth-graders and 22 percent of fourth-graders at schools with a greater than 75 percent eligibility rate reported missing three or more days of school in the past month. This compares with 14 percent of fourth-graders and 15 percent of eighth-graders in schools where 10 percent or fewer students were eligible. (Figure 4)

In addition to school-level differences, children who were themselves eligible for free or reduced price lunch were more likely to miss more than three days of school in the previous month. In 2015, 23 percent of fourth-graders and eighth-graders who were eligible for free or reduced price lunch were chronically absent, compared with 15 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders who were not eligible. (Appendix 1, Appendix 2)

Differences by school location

In 2015, students attending schools in cities or towns were more likely to be absent three or more times a month than students attending schools in suburban or rural areas. Among eighth-graders, 20 percent of those children whose school was in a city or town were absent for three or more days in the past month, compared to 18 percent in the suburbs and 19 percent in rural areas. (Appendix 2)

Other estimates

State and local estimates

Estimates of absenteeism for states and major metropolitan areas are available from the NAEP Data Explorer, 1992-2015 Reading Assessments.

To access the data, click on “Main NDE,” then select fourth-grade or eighth-grade reading, and the level (national, state, city, regional); in the “select variables” tab, click on “student factors” and then “academic record and school experience.”

International estimates

International estimates are available from the Trends in International Math and Science Study publication, How Serious are School Attendance Problems? School Contexts for Learning and Instruction. (See Exhibit 8.6)

National policy solutions

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January 2002, provides increased accountability for states, school districts, and schools, along with more flexibility for states and local agencies in how they use federal education dollars. The Adequate Yearly Progress measures hold elementary and middle schools accountable for student absenteeism.

More information is available from the Department of Education.

How to reduce student absenteeism

For examples of promising approaches that have been implemented in schools and communities, as well as at the policy level, see Attendance Works.

Data & appendices

Data sources

Data for 1994-2002: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2006) Student Absenteeism. The Condition of Education 2006. (24-2006). Table 24-2.

Data from 2003-2015: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading Assessments (NAEP), Mathematics Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP Data Explorer.

Raw data source

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress Mathematics Assessments (NAEP), 1994, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 Mathematics Assessments.

Appendices

Appendix 2 – Percentage of Eighth-Graders Who Reported Missing 3 or More Days of School in the Previous Month: Selected Years, 1994-2015

Background

Definition

From 1994 to 2000, students responded to the question, “How many days of school did you miss last month?” After 2001, students responded to, “How many days were you absent from school in the last month?” Accommodations for students with disabilities were not permitted in 1994.[9]

Endnotes

[1] Epstein, J. L. & Sheldon, S. B. (2002). Present and accounted for: Improving student attendance through family and community involvement. Journal of Educational Research, 95(5), 308-318.

[2] Ready, D. D. (2010). Socioeconomic disadvantage, school attendance, and early cognitive development: The differential effects of school exposure. Sociology of Education, 83(4), 271-286.

[3] Epstein, J. L. & Sheldon, S. B. (2002). Op. cit.

[4] McCluskey, C. P., Bynum, T. S., & Patchin, J. W. (2004). Reducing chronic absenteeism: An assessment of an early truancy initiative. Crime and Delinquency, 50(2), 214-234.

[5] Baker, M. L., Sigmon, J. N., & Nugent, M. E. (2001). Truancy reduction: Keeping students in school [Electronic Version]. Juvenile Justice Bulletin.Available at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/188947.pdf

[6] Bruner, C., Discher, A., & Chang, H. (2011). Chronic elementary absenteeism: A problem hidden in plain sight. A Research Brief from Attendance Works and Child and Family Policy Center. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/media/chronicabsence-15chang.pdf

[7] Teasley, M. L. (2004). Absenteeism and truancy: Risk, protection, and best practice implications for school social workers. Children and Schools, 26(2), 117-128.

[8] Hispanics may be any race. Estimates for whites, blacks, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and American Indians in this report do not include Hispanics.

[9] When accommodations are permitted, more students with disabilities and English language learners are able to take the assessments. For more information, see http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/inclusion.asp

Suggested citation:

Child Trends Databank. (2015). Student Absenteeism. Available at https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=student-absenteeism.