Showing Up for School

By Dennis A. Kramer II and Garry McGiboney

“A
dults,” a high school student once told us, “are always asking the wrong questions.” In Georgia, many efforts have been made to improve public education. Pockets of excellence exist, but we have not been able to cobble them together to improve as a state. So, instead of asking, “What are we missing?” we suggest that the right question may be: “Who are we missing?”

To answer this question, we started looking at statewide student attendance in a different light. Instead of just looking at truancy data -- students missing 15 or more days a school year -- we looked at all of the attendance patterns for all students, including excused, unexcused, and out-of-school suspensions.

The findings were troubling. Too many students are missing instruction because of absences, regardless of the reason. However, to change the conversation about student attendance, we needed to find research that shows the impact of absences on achievement. Unfortunately, little empirical consideration has been given to a systematic investigation of how student attendance affects achievement on a statewide scale using an entire population of students.

A few researchers and practioners have attempted to connect attendance rates with student achievement measures, and there is some evidence that an increased attendance rate predicts higher standardized test performance in urban schools. Additionally, a few have found that attendance rates are an indicator of overall school quality, which could have an indirect impact on student achievement measures.

In addition to concentrating on certain populations or environments, student attendance-based research has focused primarily on issues of truancy or the impact of extremely low student attendance rates, as in the study conducted by Camilla A. Lehr and her colleagues, published in their 2004 article for the Journal for Students Placed At Risk. They found that increases in absences in the elementary and middle grades, along with other education-related risk factors increase a student’s probability of dropping out.

Sociologically, increases in student absences are directly related to alienation from peers and school staff members along with the increased likelihood of engaging in negative behavioral activities such as tobacco, alcohol, and drug use. Increases in student absences also have been connected to a higher probability of unemployment and financial hardship. 

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