When Students Miss School

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Each fall, numerous efforts among educators are made to ensure that student attendance is a top priority. Pioneered by the nonprofit AttendanceWorks, September is now recognized as national attendance awareness month. As evidence of the success of such campaigns, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, also recently recognized September as Attendance Awareness Month for the state of California.

The purpose of promoting attendance early in the school year has two goals. First, the hope is that these days matter in setting positive overall behaviors related to attending school. Additionally, there is the fear that missing school in the early months of the school year might lead to students missing out on key initial instruction in the classroom that could lead to lower achievement in the long run.

Our Study

In a recent study I completed with Michael Gottfried, PhD, we were the first to examine the relationship between attendance at different times of the school year and spring standardized test scores. Specifically, we were interested in whether missing school in the fall or spring mattered more. Our study was motivated by prior research illustrating that students missing school predicts poorer grades, lower test scores, and lower rates of grade promotion.

It’s all about WHEN

Theoretically, students who are absent in the fall months might miss out on formative instruction. As a result, their future performance is negatively impacted because they missed the foundational concepts. However, it may also be plausible that missing school in the spring months might matter more for standardized testing outcomes. This is because spring is often a crucial period of concept review and preparation for these assessments.

We looked at data from a California school district to answer this question. We found that absences in the spring was associated with lower test scores for elementary students in math and English language arts (ELA). The results were particularly pronounced for girls, students not designated as English learners, high-achieving students, and students not receiving free-reduced priced lunch. Interestingly, there was no a relationship between fall absences and spring test scores.

Examining our data closer, we found that the days leading up to the exam were particularly important. Students who were absent within 30-60 days of taking the math assessment and 30 days of taking the ELA assessment tended to score even lower on the exam.

The findings from our study are important to consider when thinking specifically about how the timing of absenteeism should be an important consideration for policymakers and educators. There has been prior research demonstrating that early year attendance links to later year attendance, but this study argues for an added conversation about how student attendance throughout the year is an important for student success.

Attendance Really Does Matter

Another important takeaway from our study is who is affected by missing school. It can be easy for parents to justify their students missing school because they do well in the classroom or they have their access to resources outside of school. However, our study shows that high-achieving students and students with more resources outside of school show particularly strong relationships between spring attendance and testing scores. These results illustrate that more advantaged demographics of students can still experience negative effects from missing school.

Generally, it can be assumed that missing school close to any test is what really  matters for students’ outcomes. Students are learning throughout the school year, and missing a day of school likely has a similar impact on a student regardless of the time of year. As such, we expect that students are suffer similar consequences on other assessments that occur throughout the year, and that absences are thus continuously influencing academic outcomes for students at all times.

Moving forward our work seeks to further our understanding for how absences can negatively impact students academically and otherwise. One way to address the importance of attendance for parents and students alike is to note the continuous process with which learning occurs. With our work, we hope educators and parents continue to value student attendance and learning during all times in the school year.

About the Author

Jacob Kirksey is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Barbara in the Department of Education. His studies focus broadly on education policy with a more specific focus on attendance in elementary school and other early education policy topics. Jacob can be reached at jjkirksey@umail.uscb.edu.

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