Ed. officials surprised by high rates of chronic absenteeism

Ed. officials surprised by high rates of chronic absenteeism

(Maine) Recently released state data shows 16 percent of students in Maine were chronically absent last year–a number so high even education officials were surprised.

Under Maine law, students are considered absent if they miss more than half a school day, and are chronically absent if they miss at least 10 percent of school days—or 18 days or more in a 175-day school year. More than 29,000 of the nearly 192,000 students in Maine missed at least that much class time during the 2016-17 school year.

“To be honest, it’s higher than we anticipated it being,” Janette Kirk, a deputy director at the Maine Department of Education, told the Bangor Daily News. “Any absence whether excused or unexcused affects student achievement.”

According to most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, 14 percent of students across the country missed at least 15 days of school during the 2013-14 school year.

Research has long shown that children who are chronically absent as early as sixth grade are more likely to drop out of school and come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Even in the earliest grades, students who are chronically absent are less likely than their peers to be proficient in reading by the 3rd grade–a common benchmark for academic success in later grades.

In Maine, the education department recently started tracking chronic absences as an indicator of school accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Previously, schools only had to report what percentage of students showed up for class each day, but because most students attend school most of the time, those who were absent most often got lost in calculating the data.

That is why, statewide, the average daily absence rate was just 6 percent in 2016-17 despite 16 percent of students being chronically absent.

One of the state’s largest districts–Lewiston Public Schools–saw a similar discrepancy in its own data. According to Bill Webster, the district’s superintendent, average daily attendance was around 94 percent while one-in-six students were chronically absent.

From what he has observed among his own students, Webster told local reporters that much of the problem stems from the fact that more kids are having problems at home than ever before. For some students the problem is food insecurity, others don’t have a stable living situation, and still more are affected by a parents’ abuse of opioids.

The data released by the Department of Education did show some correlation between chronic absenteeism and the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch–especially as students began to reach high school. Rates of absenteeism were also higher in rural areas and large service center communities.

According to Kirk, the Maine Department of Education would like to reduce the rate of chronic absenteeism to below 10 percent, but the state has not announced a timeline for when it wants to reach that goal.