Public districts or charters? Proficiency or growth? Graduation standards, credit loads, equity, homework, standardized tests. Name an issue in education and you’re likely to find partisans on either side of the debate willing to argue how their pet topic — and their stance on it — is the key to fixing the school system.
But there’s another education issue that’s less often talked about that might trump them all.
Last school year, at least one in six students in Minnesota school districts and charter schools missed 10 percent or more days of the school year (which includes both excused and unexcused absences), data from the Minnesota Department of Education show.
Experts call this chronic absenteeism, and their research finds that missing that many days of class is enough to seriously imperil kids’ academic proficiency, test scores, and their prospects of earning a high school diploma.
It’s a big problem that cuts across geography and age groups, and one that disproportionately affects the kids who can least afford to be missing a lot of school. And in recent years, the issue has increasingly attracted the attention of education officials and policymakers nationwide: after all, how effective can teachers be in teaching reading, writing or arithmetic if their students aren’t at school in the first place? Yet because chronic absences are not tracked and used in accountability measures, doing much about it is tough.
Who’s missing school in Minnesota
Broken down by district, race and other student populations, the Minnesota Department of Education data offer a picture of which Minnesota students are missing enough school to put their educations at risk.
Most districts and charters in Minnesota have rates of chronic absenteeism close to the state average of 16 percent. Some districts have much higher rates, including some where a majority of students were chronically absent last year.
But that doesn’t mean every student in these schools and districts is as likely to be chronically absent.
In Minnesota as in the U.S., chronic absence tends to follow poverty. Across the state last year, 24 percent — nearly a quarter — of students enrolled in the free or reduced priced meal program in Minnesota school districts and charters, used as a proxy for poverty, were chronically absent, data from the Minnesota Department of Education show.
Since median household incomes are lower for most minority groups than for whites here, and people of color disproportionately live in poverty, it should come as no surprise that rates of chronic absenteeism in Minnesota last year were higher for all minority student groups (with the exception of Asian students, a group that also has lower levels of poverty and higher median incomes), than they were for white students.
It’s important to note that these data are only a snapshot of the students who were chronically absent students in one school year: they say nothing of students who were chronically absent other years, which research shows is common.
Another important caveat: these may be lowball estimates. Attendance data relies on teachers marking students absent during the school day and don’t account for different districts’ attendance policies, so absences may be underreported. For student privacy, the Minnesota Department of Education redacts student groups smaller than 10, which likely causes some estimates shown here to be lower, too.
Already at a disadvantage
Whether caused by chronic absence, exacerbated by it, or both, the student groups most affected by chronic absence in Minnesota are, statistically speaking, the same student groups more likely to fall short of proficiency on tests and not graduate from high school.
In 2016, the four-year high school graduation rate for students living in poverty was 68.2 percent — 14 percentage points below the state average. And the share of low-income students considered “on-track” in their reading and math studies is likewise far below the state average.
This is no small group of students we’re talking about: 37.7 percent of Minnesota students are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program statewide.
Minnesota has some of the largest gaps between white and minority student achievement in the U.S., and, given the effects of frequent absence on students’ education, higher rates of chronic absenteeism among students of color likely isn’t helping.
Some of the largest and most diverse school districts in Minnesota — Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts — had just slightly higher than average rates of chronic absenteeism, at 19.3 and 17.5 percent, respectively, last year, but because of their size, that adds up to a lot of students: more than 9,100 students in Minneapolis and nearly 8,500 in St. Paul. Rates of chronic absenteeism for low-income, American Indian, black and Hispanic students in these districts were much higher than for white students.
But these were not the highest rates of chronic absence in the state. Since chronic absenteeism tends to follow poverty, high rates of it tend to be found where poverty is found.
The highest levels of chronic absence of any Minnesota school district can be found in Cass Lake-Bena Public Schools, a district of 1,460 students on the Leech Lake Reservation, in the Bemidji area. Last year, 912 kids, or about 63 percent of students enrolled in the district missed 10 percent or more of school days, according to MDE data. Cass-Lake Bena’s student population is about 85 percent American Indian.
While part of the reason the vast majority of Cass Lake-Bena kids are missing a lot of school is likely poverty-related (85 percent of students are enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program) there’s another possible explanation for high rates of absenteeism.
American Indian students are chronically absent at rates higher than any other student group in the U.S. Part of this is likely tied to poverty, but it’s also rooted in a complicated relationship between the American Indian community and schools that goes back more than a hundred years, to government efforts to assimilate American Indian children, said Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit aimed at researching and reducing chronic absenteeism.
“I don't care that that was a generation ago. That generation is still around, they’re raising the kids, (so) you have deep-seated mistrust,” she said.
So high rates of chronic absenteeism tend to be found in high-poverty areas, which are often places where Minnesota’s minority communities live. Look to Minnesota’s whiter, less impoverished districts, and you’ll tend to find fewer students who are chronically absent.
Lanesboro Public School District, with 366 students, 97 percent of them white, had one of the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism of any district last year (not including charter schools), with just 12 students — or 3.3 percent — chronically absent.
Off the radar
The scope of this issue and its implications are huge for education, and not just in Minnesota. But chronic absence hasn’t really been on most policymakers’ radars until fairly recently. Though a few states have been tracking it for years, the first federal report on chronic absenteeism came out last year and found that 14 percent of students in U.S. schools were absent for 15 or more days of the school year (another common definition of chronic absenteeism), which came as a shock to many.
It’s not that schools don’t keep attendance data — they do. But the data aren’t always used in a way that helps educators intervene effectively when kids miss a lot of school, according to Robert Balfanz, who studies chronic absence at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education.
First, “Most report cards tell parents how many days their kids were absent per quarter. They have the data, they just don’t aggregate it on the school level,” Balfanz said.
And second, the attendance measure used for accountability — average daily attendance — obscures a lot of important details about who is missing school.
For schools, having an average daily attendance of 90 percent is considered pretty good — but it doesn't show patterns in students or groups missing a lot of school, which, in turn, would help in developing systematic interventions, Balfanz said.
For example, Cass Lake-Bena schools’ attendance rate last year by the average daily attendance measure was 86.8 percent, according to MDE. This in spite of 63 percent of students there missing 10 percent or more of school days.
As far as taking attendance goes in Minnesota, some things are uniform across districts — like the computer system that’s used to report attendance to the state — but others are different. State law leaves some wiggle room in attendance policies for districts to define, which means definitions of absences can vary. How schools use that data to deal with students who miss a lot of school varies, too.
Counties are jointly responsible for intervening in truancy cases, too. In Hennepin County, schools are supposed to notify parents when a student is absent without an excuse, then notify the county attorney’s office after a student has had six unexcused absences in a school year (some schools are better than others at doing this, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said). The county meets with families through its be@school program, tries to identify the underlying problem causing attendance issues, and connects families with any available services that may help solve them. After 15 unexcused absences, the county attorney’s office reviews students’ cases to determine whether child protection services or a court petition are needed. Of 5,000 referrals from Minneapolis Public Schools to be@school in 2015-16, only 410 ended up in child protection services or truancy court, according to be@school.
In many cases, Freeman said, county officials have learned that the obstacles preventing students from attending school stem from poverty.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as shoes, or lunches, or transportation,” he said. “Lots of times, tragically, it’s a young mom who has an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old and she’s working, and the dad is long gone, and she has the 8-year-old babysitting the 3-year-old during the day.”
But the county’s system is reactive, and designed for kids with unexcused absences — which means kids who miss school enough to harm their education because of excused absences or combined excused and unexcused absences may fall through the cracks.
Bloomington takes action
One Minnesota district that has begun to track chronic absence is Bloomington Public Schools, in the inner-ring of Twin Cities suburbs.
Though the district’s become more diverse than it used to be, Bloomington doesn’t have rates of poverty quite as high as districts in the urban core: In Bloomington, 42 percent of students are signed up for free or reduced price lunch, and just over half the district’s student population is white.
Compared to many districts Bloomington has relatively low levels of chronic absenteeism. Last school year, 541, or 4 percent of the district’s 12,600 kids missed 10 percent or more of school days, according to MDE.
But Bloomington’s hoping to reduce that number with a new, proactive focus on attendance. Across the district’s 10 elementary schools, it’s aiming to achieve a 95 percent attendance rate, which translates into no more than eight missed school days — excused or unexcused — per student.
The 95 percent threshold is a bit higher than the 90 percent threshold commonly used to define chronic absenteeism, but Dave Heistad, the district’s executive director of research, evaluation and assessment, says it seems to be the magic number.
“Last year, when we looked at data, there was a very strong correlation between attending at least 95 percent of the possible days and math growth — not just math proficiency, but it’s how much learning took place from the fall to spring. That was across virtually every school,” he said.
Andy Kubas, executive director of the district’s learning supports division, has asked Bloomington’s elementary school principals, teachers and support staff to study the problem and help figure out what works to solve it. While the taking of attendance is uniform across the district — it’s taken every class period for middle and high schoolers and once a day for elementary school students, who tend to stay in the same classroom — each school site had traditionally tackled attendance issues piecemeal. But by year’s end, he hopes they’ll have created a 3-tiered plan that will bring some consistency to how the district supports making sure kids actually get in the door.
The first tier involves better communicating the importance of good attendance to parents and students, who often aren’t aware of just how quickly missed days of school can add up. The hope is that these talks give parents more pause before taking their kid out of school.
“If your 9-year-old is going to be sick probably four or five times, it doesn't leave a lot of time to make some discretionary decisions about taking them out for a mental health day, or taking them out to go to Nickelodeon Universe,” Kubas said. “We have to think about the totality of it and keep your mind on that kind of stuff.”
Offering another example, Kubas said some parents didn’t have a positive education experience themselves and may pass along poor attendance habits without realizing the impact it could have on their child’s education.
The second tier will be a set of incentives and interventions. Some may recognize students or classrooms with the best attendance records at a school rally. At least one new intervention, designed to help curb absences amongst the district’s homeless students, has already been put into practice.
Kubas says they’ve discovered a new phenomenon: rather than going to shelters, a lot of homeless families are scoping out hotel deals on their smartphones and moving up and down the I-494 hotel corridor.
“So every night they’re going somewhere and the transportation system can’t catch up to them,” Kubas said, noting it takes about two days to establish a new bus route for students who move.
To bypass this delay, they’ve designated a van that will pick up these students as soon as a parents calls in with an updated location.
At tier 3, they’ll use the system that’s already in place through Hennepin County — but hopefully only as a last resort.
“The county doesn’t have, in my opinion, the capacity to do anything too preventatively,” Kubas said. “But we do and we haven’t been.”
Statewide tracking could come soon
Bloomington’s experiment could prove to be of wide interest in Minnesota because soon, the state’s districts may have to start tracking chronic absenteeism and reporting it to the federal government. Under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by Congress in 2015, states are required to choose at least one new measure by which to hold schools accountable.
Among the choices are things like student and teacher engagement, postsecondary readiness, school climate, expulsion rates and chronic absenteeism — which many states, including Minnesota, have discussed adopting. Minnesota already has the data infrastructure in place to track chronic absenteeism, it just doesn’t have a definition by which to measure it, or rules on how to use it to identify schools where it’s an issue.
In November, an ESSA compliance subcommittee had some concerns about the measure, but recommended chronic absenteeism be considered as an accountability measure for all grade levels.
The Minnesota Department of Education will submit its plan for complying with ESSA in September.
With any luck, that system — if the state chooses chronic absenteeism as a measure — will help educators understand the scope and the effects of chronic absence in Minnesota, allowing them to set up programs to intervene.
Institutions that have set up systems to identify students who are chronically absent and intervene have seen results, said Chang said.
In New Britain, Connecticut, these strategies helped cut the kindergarten chronic absentee rate, which had been nearly a third, by more than half.
“Schools that have a tiered support system and use their data are able to significantly reduce rates of chronic absence,” Chang said. “You really have to get people understanding that attendance isn’t compliance. It’s an indicator of whether kids are in class to learn.”
Erin Hinrichs contributed reporting to this story.