The opening days of school conjure up images of backpacks stuffed with notebooks and pencils, bulletin boards freshly decorated by teachers, and students greeting each other after summer break. But even in these early days of the new school year, some students already are heading toward academic trouble.
These students are starting the academic year missing too many days of school. Across the country, as many as 7.5 million students miss nearly a month of school every year, and in Utah, 13.5 percent of our students missed more than 10 percent of the school year in 2011. These absences can correlate with poor academic performance at every grade level and increase the likelihood a student will drop out of high school.
Good attendance is central to student achievement and our broader efforts to improve schools. Investments in new technology, curriculum and instruction won't amount to much if students are not in school to benefit.
Gov. Gary Herbert, as well as cities and school districts throughout Utah, are recognizing September as Attendance Awareness Month, part of a nationwide movement to convey the message that every school day counts, even in kindergarten. These efforts, as well as measures implemented in many Utah schools, can help reduce the achievement gap between minority and low-income students and their more affluent peers, while leading to improved academic outcomes despite large class sizes and budget cuts.
The impact that chronic absence has on academic achievement begins in kindergarten. Utah is experiencing a greater proportion of chronic absenteeism among its kindergarten students than students in any other elementary school year. Unfortunately, these chronically absent kindergarten students are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, and they struggle throughout their academic career. When parents understand the relationship between chronic absence in kindergarten and academic achievement they will likely prioritize consistent school attendance for their young students.
The negative outcomes continue as students get older. By middle school, chronic absence becomes one of the leading indicators that a child will drop out of high school, and by ninth grade chronic absence is a better indicator of dropping out than eighth grade test scores. When students are chronically absent in any one year between 8th and 12th grade, they are twice as likely to drop out of high school.
Chronic absence occurs for a variety of reasons. It tends to occur more frequently among students living in poverty who have unreliable transportation, housing issues, and limited health care access. But it can also result from chronic or serious illness of a child or parent, bullying, or simply because parents do not understand the full impact repeated absences can have on academic achievement. After all, absences, excused or unexcused, add up quickly. Chronic absence occurs when a student is absent 18 or more days throughout the school year only two days a month.
As Utah strives to reach its goal of 66 percent of its students obtaining a trade certificate or college degree by 2020, we must reverse the negative academic outcomes resulting from chronic absence. Attendance Awareness Month will help parents and students learn the impacts of poor attendance. Activities throughout September will let families know about the critical role they play in getting children to school consistently throughout the school year.
It is up to parents to build a habit of good attendance, and avoid all unnecessary absences while school is in session. Teachers will also be helping to reinforce this message, along with policymakers, business leaders and community and faith leaders.
Students should be in school consistently to make every day count!
Tracy S. Gruber is policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children.