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Torlakson to Host State Policy Forum on Improving School Attendance

May 16, 2011

SACRAMENTO—California’s effort to close the achievement gaps, improve graduation rates and address local budget challenges can all benefit from improving school attendance. But the state has more work to do before it can fully use this key early warning indicator to identify and turn around students and schools headed off track academically.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson will host a policy forum exploring what keeps students from coming to school in the first place and how schools and communities can partner to bring them back to the classroom.

“Efforts to improve curriculum and instruction will always be insufficient if our students aren’t attending school regularly,” said Brad Strong of Children Now, a leader in the Chronic Absence and Attendance Partnership, which is co-sponsoring the forum. “We also need to do more to improve attendance and, with it, student achievement.”

The forum for local, state and school leaders will feature two experts in school attendance: Robert Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins University researcher who has done pioneering work to identify high school “dropout factories” across the country, and Hedy Chang, a researcher and advocate on absenteeism starting in the early grades.

Balfanz considers school attendance one of three early warning indicators that can predict, as early as 6th grade, whether a student will drop out of high school. Rather than simply looking at truancy, Balfanz’s research relies on “chronic absence,” a broader measure that encompasses excused and unexcused absences for each student.

Likewise, Chang’s work as director of Attendance Works focuses on chronic absence, starting as early as kindergarten. Research she released in 2008 demonstrated that one in 10 kindergarten and 1st grade students nationally missed 10 percent of the school year and that those absences have dire effects on achievement, especially for low-income children.

Chang, who is based in San Francisco, will discuss findings from a recent analysis of the Oakland Unified School District and from a new study demonstrating what happens to students who arrive at kindergarten ready for school, but then rack up excessive absences in the early grades.

“Often absences have nothing to do with truancy,” Chang said. “Asthma or diabetes can keep a student home from school. So can neighborhood violence and schoolyard bullying. Schools need to give kids an inviting and engaging place to learn. Community organizations can help schools build a culture of attendance and break down the barriers that keep students from coming to school.”

The forum will also include panels of policymakers discussing implications for state and local policy and how to leverage community resources to reduce chronic absence.

California is one of five states that does not track attendance in its longitudinal student data system. A new state law could change that, but it relies on necessary federal funds and on local districts sharing their data with the state. Despite the lack of statewide data, some school districts have conducted analyses that reflect the extent of the problem locally. The results show:

  • Chronic absence can reach high levels in urban and rural districts. The Oakland analysis found that nearly one in seven students missed 10 percent of the 2009-2010 school year. In rural Del Norte, the figure was one in six the same year.

  • Chronic absence starts early. In Oakland, 17 percent of kindergarten students were chronically absent. In Los Angeles, where 100,000 students missed 9 percent of school days in 2009-2010, the kindergarten absentee rate (22.6 percent) was essentially the same as the 9th grade absentee rate (22.7 percent).

  • Chronic absence can drag down student achievement. Research shows that for poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten translates into lower 5th grade achievement. By 6th grade, it begins to predict high school dropout rates for all students. By 9th grade, missing 20 percent of school can be a better predictor of dropout than 8th-grade test scores.

  • Chronic absence can erode the gains from school readiness. A new analysis by Applied Survey Research and Attendance Works showed that the effect of school readiness skills nurtured in preschool can fade by 3rd grade for students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and 1st grade.

  • Chronic absence disproportionately affects poor and minority students. Nationally, low-income children are four times more likely to be chronically absent than their peers. Oakland’s African American elementary students are three times more likely than white students and twice as likely as Latinos to miss 10 percent of school days. In LAUSD, one in four black and one in five Native American students misses too much school. For white and Latino students, is about one in six.

  • Chronic absence is costing school districts state funding. If the 5,421 Oakland students who were chronically absent in 2009-2010 had each attended six more days, OUSD would have received more than $1.1 million in additional state average daily attendance money.

The forum is scheduled for Thursday, May 19, 2011, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at 1500 Capitol Avenue in Sacramento.

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