A Picture of Chronic Absenteeism

College & Career Readiness, High School Success | 03/12/2018

Katie Gustainis
Marketing & Communications Manager, Stand for Children Washington

Cinthia is 17 years old and in the 11th grade at a high school in Tacoma, Washington. “I want to be someone,” she says. "I want a job after high school."

A high school diploma, however, is still out of reach for Cinthia. She struggles with depression, and the normal school day is often overwhelming for her. There have been many days – too many days – where she’s opted to stay home instead of facing the burden of classwork. “Going to school is really hard. I’d rather stay home.”

Cinthia is one of many “chronically absent” students that Washington struggles with. The state has the second highest rate of chronically absent students in the country with 17% of students missing 18 or more days of school per year. These students often struggle to catch up once they’ve started falling behind.

The Department of Education released a report on chronic absenteeism in 2016 detailing the negative impacts these students stand to face.  One study included in the report “found that an incidence of chronic absenteeism in even a single year between 8th and 12th grade was associated with a seven-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out.” (U.S. Dept of Education) In Washington, where two-thirds of jobs will require some post-secondary education by 2020, a high school diploma has become critical to upward mobility.

Digging for the Cause

Tacoma Public Schools, like many school districts in Washington, has struggled for years with a chronically absent student population. In the 2016 school year, 23% of students were chronically absent. Those rates are even higher for students from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities.

To address this problem, school administrators and state officials have been digging into the reasons why some students don’t show up to school. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released data in 2016 about chronic absenteeism in Washington and listed these reasons (among others) for why students are absent:

  • Chronic diseases such as asthma.
  • Lack of health and dental care.
  • Students who are drafted to care for younger siblings when parents can’t.
  • Unmet needs from food to clothing.
  • Transportation problems. Middle-class students who miss the bus might get a ride from parents; those in lower-income families often have no way to get to school.
  • Students who avoid school because of problems with bullying.
  • Students who are disconnected from school and not engaged with learning.
  • Parents who feel absences are only a problem if they’re unexcused.
  • A belief that attendance isn’t important in early grades.

For Cinthia, her difficulty stems from her mental health struggles. One of the complicating factors has been her anti-depressant medication. Although she was prescribed it to help alleviate her symptoms, one of its side effects has been drowsiness. The fogginess she feels on the medication makes it difficult to pay attention in class. This solution, then, has become another reason why Cinthia is struggling at school. Her story is not uncommon. Whether it’s depression, trauma, transportation issues, or family needs, students like Cinthia miss school every day for their own complicated reasons.

Finding a Way Forward

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has emphasized the importance of identifying and using early warning indicators to make sure every student makes it to graduation. The most important of those measures are chronic absenteeism, 9th grade course failure, and discipline rates.  In 2015, Tacoma launched an Early Warning System in their high schools based on these indicators. Focused on the 9th grade, it draws on extensive research from the University of Chicago that students are four times more likely to graduate if they’re on track (meaning they have enough credits to move to 10th grade and has not failed more than one course) by the end of their first year in high school. This indicator is so powerful that it matters regardless of a student’s race, level of poverty, or test scores.

According to the The News Tribune’s article on the system in 2016:

“Principals get a weekly report on student attendance that ranks students from best to worst attendance. They develop what is known as a “hot list” of students who are missing too much school, and teacher teams review the data and decide how to reach out to each student.”

The goal of their Early Warning System goes beyond marking attendance. It creates a system of support that includes social-emotional learning, academic planning, and community resources. Often a student’s problem is non-academic, which means schools are stepping in to support families before a student is too far behind.

The system “uses data tracking and analysis to identify students whose attendance falls off and employs teachers to act as positive mentors.” (Tacoma Public Schools)

The Early Warning System is one of the most recent tools Tacoma has employed to support its students and address its student needs, but it’s not the only one. Over the seven years from 2010 to 2017, Tacoma Public Schools improved its graduation rate over 30 points to 86.1%. The administration’s focus on chronic absenteeism is the next step in their plan to improve the number of Tacoma students reaching graduation.

Cinthia has hopes of becoming one of those graduating students, but she has a long way to go. Her absenteeism has impacted her studies and she does not have the number of credits she needs for a diploma. Although the Early Warning System in Tacoma will be a useful intervention for younger students, Cinthia, and students like her, must find a different path to graduation, despite what her early indicators may have predicted.

Share This Page

Add a comment


  • We have always dealt with all these issues in the schools. We see more parents allowing their children to work, to babysit, etc. When we reach out to parents in our district for personal meetings, etc., we don't get much response. We also have social worker - type employees who will visit the homes and/or pick up and take students home from school. It appears this is a larger community problem/families issue of support. We have clothes and food for them. We help them access medical care, etc. Hope this changes. And why in Washington State - where we have access to multiple social services, and agencies who spend a lot of time and money in outreach.
    D. Paulter

    March 23, 2018 9:40 AM

  • Chronic Absenteeism is on the table now because of ESSA. It is a measure that schools can use without too much cost or change. Kids not attending school is not new and it is not clear that it is a useful lever to improve schools particularly if the reasons are identified as outside of the control of the school. Inside the school reasons for not attending: School is a boring waste of time. Teachers are hostile. A teacher or administrator was mean or demeaning. No one notices if you are there or not. There are more educational experience outside of school then inside of school. It is hard to sit in classes all day where you are expected not to talk and follow dumb and demeaning instructions. Teachers are not prepared. They do not put in time to make learning rigorous. Their low expectations for themselves feel disrespectful to students. When teachers are demeaning and angry toward students they are not held accountable. When teacher are not prepared for class and they waste students time, they are not accountable. If a student complains about boring classes they risk getting a bad grade. It is better to just not attend the class. As long as the attendance data are analyzed as being about the student- the school and school system misses the point. Those data are about the school interactions and practices. They should be analyzed to understand what about the school practices are creating obstacles that cause students to struggle to attend?
    Sue Feldman

    March 23, 2018 11:08 AM