Student Absences: How They Hurt and What Works
by Michael A. Gottfried & Seth Gershenson - May 01, 2015
Researchers, policy makers, and practitioners commonly assume that student absences matter. When students are not in school, we uphold that they miss out on learning opportunities and forgo valuable social/developmental activities; consequently, when absent students return to school, they are said to be behind and often feel alienated. Moreover, student absences may affect teachers and classmates by disrupting routines and causing teachers to spend time helping students to “catch up” following an absence spell. Given these concerns, recent discourse has emphasized the importance of school attendance.
Researchers, policy makers, and practitioners commonly assume that student absences matter. When students are not in school, we uphold that they miss out on learning opportunities and forgo valuable social/developmental activities; consequently, when absent students return to school, they are said to be behind and often feel alienated. Moreover, student absences may affect teachers and classmates by disrupting routines and causing teachers to spend time helping students catch up following a long absence. Given these concerns, recent discourse has emphasized the importance of school attendance. In California alone, this has been a focal point of action across the stakeholder spectrumfrom school districts (e.g., Santa Barbara Unified School District) to key policy offices (e.g., California Attorney General Kamala Harris).
Policy makers and practitioners continue to charge forward in efforts to reduce student absences. As they do so, it is important to have a solid research base with which to make evidence-based decisionsone that indicates that the relationship between absences and schooling outcomes is more than simply correlational. Interestingly, however, research on determining to what extent absences harm student outcomes is only a recent addition to the field. Within this burgeoning body of research evidence, the findings are indeed consistent with the hypothesis that missing school matters. Numerous studies conducted in different contexts using different analytic approaches consistently find evidence of similarly sized, arguably causal effects of student absences on academic achievement.
HOW ABSENCES HURT
At district, state, and national levels, researchers have found that student absences are associated with drops in academic achievement. Importantly, these relationships are arguably causal, and it is reassuring that a variety of analytic approaches have yielded effects that are similar in magnitude. At the district level, two studiesGottfried (2010, 2011b)analyze elementary and middle school data from the Philadelphia School District. Gottfried (2010) exploits quasi-random variation in students distance from school to estimate the relationship between absences and test scores. He found decreasing the number of days in school by one standard deviation led to an 1116% reduction of a test-score standard deviation in the year in which those absences occurred. Gottfried (2011b) exploits variation among absence patterns of siblings and finds effect sizes that are slightly lower, but still suggestive of a detrimental effect on achievement.
At the state level, Aucejo and Romano (2014) and Gershenson, Jacknowitz, & Brannegan (2014) use statewide longitudinal administrative data on third through fifth-graders in North Carolinas public schools to study the association between student absences and academic achievement. In addition to estimating models that control for differences between students, teachers, and schools, Aucejo and Romano (2014) also leverage geographic and temporal variation in flu outbreaks to estimate the effect of absences on achievement. Gershenson et al. (2014) estimate valueadded models that exploit withinclassroom variation in student absences. Similarly, Goodman (2014) uses statewide administrative data from Massachusetts to estimate the effect of absences on academic achievement, leveraging geographic and temporal variation in inclement weather to estimate the effect of student absences. Regardless of the methods used, all three studies find evidence of statistically significant, arguably causal, negative effects of student absences on academic achievement. Specifically, the North Carolina studies find that ten additional absences reduce math achievement by about 6% of a test-score standard deviation, while the Massachusetts study finds even larger harmful effects of student absences.
Finally, Gershenson et al. (2014) and Gottfried (2014) use nationally representative data on the 199899 and 201011 U.S. kindergarten cohorts, respectively, to examine the relationship between student absences and student outcomes. Both studies use similar value-added models while controlling for between-classroom variation and find that in both cohorts, a ten-absence increase in student absences is associated with decreases in math achievement of 24% of a test-score SD.
Less is known about what interventions and educational inputs improve student attendance. Reducing absences has the potential to improve academic achievement, with relatively low program costs. Moreover, improving the attendance habits of socioeconomically disadvantaged students has the potential to reduce the achievement gap, as the extant research repeatedly finds evidence of attendance gaps that favor more advantaged students (e.g., Gershenson et al., 2014). Improving primary school students attendance may be particularly important, as school disengagement and chronic absence problems can occur as early as first grade (Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001). Improving students attendance habits has the potential to improve long-run socioeconomic outcomes as well, given that regular attendance is highly valued by employers (Lerman, 2013).
One potential policy lever that might affect student attendance is a teacher. Indeed, the literature on teacher effectiveness has recently begun to examine teachers effects on student absences and related non-cognitive skills (Gershenson et al., 2014; Jackson, 2012; Ladd & Sorenson, 2014). Gershenson et al. (2014) find that primary school teachers have significant effects on student absences. Ladd and Sorenson (2014) find that such effects are larger among more experienced teachers. Jackson (2012) finds that ninth-grade teachers have significant effects on non-academic outcomes, as measured by an index of which student absences are one component. Another policy lever might be student support. For instance, a study of the Talent Development high school program, initially launched in five Philadelphia public high schools, found that the program increased student attendance rates by three to seven percent in the first three treated cohorts (Kemple, Herlihy, & Smith, 2005). The program provided students with individualized support that, among other things, prioritized high attendance.
Moving forward, identifying the interventions, supports, and instructional practices that improve student attendance has the potential to improve student outcomes in at least two ways. First, to the extent that attendance habits are sticky, improving attitudes toward attendance in primary school may improve attendance in secondary school, postsecondary education, and ultimately in the labor market. This is an example of skills begetting skills. Second, the extant research suggests that improving student attendance will improve academic achievement. More so, improving attendance among low-performing and socioeconomically disadvantaged students has the potential to close gaps in academic achievement and educational attainment.
Much remains to be learned about the design and efficacy of interventions intended to reduce student absences; however, with the evidence base thus far, we have moved onto the right course. We are now in a position to use established research to consider future policies, practices, and interventions. The importance of doing so not only has the potential to improve outcomes for all students, but will also help reduce gaps for those at greatest risk of educational failure.
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Gershenson, S. (in press). Linking teacher quality, student attendance, and student achievement. Education Finance & Policy.
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Lerman, R. I. (2013). Are employability skills learned in US youth education and training programs? IZA Journal of Labor Policy 2(6). 120. doi: 10.1186/2193-9004-2-6