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California Legislature Approves Bill to Support an Early Warning System to Prevent Student Dropout

Aug 26, 2010

The California State Senate today gave final approval to legislation that would create an early warning system for high school dropout prevention, tracking student attendance as early as kindergarten. The legislation, SB 1357, puts the state in the forefront of an emerging education movement that uses attendance data to determine when students are headed off track academically, and to develop solutions that will bring kids back to school. 

“We all know that dropping out is a process, not a specific event, and the process is marked by many indicators along the way, including school attendance—and the flip side of attendance is excessive absenteeism,” Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the bill’s sponsor, said after the final vote in the Senate. “Poor attendance and chronic absence, even in the early grades, is highly predictive of higher dropout rates later on.”

Rather than focus on truancy, Steinberg’s bill encompasses the broader measure of chronic absence, which includes both unexcused and excused absences. Researchers have identified this prevalence measure as a key predictor of whether a student ultimately graduates. Research also shows that attendance problems start well before high school: one in 10 kindergarten and 1st grade students nationally misses a month of school and the absences correlate with poor academic performance in the early grades and eventual dropout in the later grades.

“Chronic absence is arguably one of the most important data points we should be tracking if we really want to close the achievement gap,” said Hedy N. Chang, a San Francisco-based researcher who heads the national Attendance Counts initiative. “I’m pleased that California’s lawmakers recognize that we need to do a better job tracking student absences.”
SB 1357 would set a common definition of chronic absence for California’s school districts: missing 10 percent of the school year. It would enable the inclusion of attendance data for individual students in the state’s longitudinal data base, as long as there is federal funding to support the effort. And it would make chronic absence analysis, reporting and intervention a key part of an early warning system. The bill unanimously passed the Senate today and now goes to the governor’s desk for signature.

“By focusing on chronic absence and early warning systems, districts and teachers can more readily focus on the students that are most at risk,” said Brad Strong, senior director of education policy at Children Now and one of the leaders in the Chronic Absence & Attendance Partnership, the coalition of state organizations that has pushed hard for the measure. “Highly mobile students have additional risk factors, and including this information in the state system will also ensure that districts and teachers would know these challenges exist at entry, before the attendance lapses begin to reappear.”

The legislative vote comes just two days after the San Francisco school board voted unanimously to call on the district superintendent to analyze chronic absence data and launch a pilot program to address the problem in several struggling elementary schools. At least 16 of the district’s 76 elementary schools have chronic absence rates higher than 15 percent, meaning one in seven students is missing 18 or more days of school.

Also this week, New York City launched pilot programs in 25 schools, including 10 elementary campuses, to address chronic absenteeism and truancy. Next week, Baltimore is opening its schools with a far-reaching attendance initiative; already the city has cut its middle school chronic absence rate in half with a variety of systemic reforms. Unexcused absences—or truancy—tend to be bigger problems in middle and high school years. In the early grades, children seldom stay home without a parent’s knowledge, and the absences are more likely to be excused. Still, these students are missing out on critical class time. For poor children, unable to make up for that lost time, early absences can leave them far behind by the time they reach 5th grade.

The causes, and solutions, for addressing early chronic absence are necessarily different than those for chronic truancy. Analyzing attendance data carefully can point to the right approach. A concentration of chronically absent students in a single neighborhood could suggest the need for a new school bus or a safer walking route. A cluster of asthma cases could require stepped-up efforts by the school nurse and other community health care providers. High absentee numbers in a school or in a single classroom can suggest a problem with curriculum and instruction. In San Diego, where the nonprofit Children’s Initiative tracks local chronic absence rates as part of its school “report card,” parents say conflicting vacation schedules for elementary and secondary districts often contribute to absences.

“By focusing on chronic absence at the school and student level, districts, communities and teachers can really devote their attention to the areas of greatest need,” said Chang, who added, “This is really a promising development.”

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