Saturday, January 25, 2020
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Chronic absenteeism may hurt achievement gap

Students who are chronically absent in kindergarten have about a 15 to 20 percent lower chance of scoring proficient in reading through seventh grade than those who aren’t, the Washington Post relays from a report by Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign.

The teen years may be too late, but chronic absenteeism is coming into focus for younger students.

And while the report addresses much more than reading scores in third through seventh grade, every piece of data here involves correlation, not causation.

Let me explain what I mean. Take a look at this excerpt:

Much has been written about the direct correlation between high school chronic absence and dropout rates. Recent research, though, suggests that attendance trends starting in first grade can predict graduation rates. Jason Schoeneberger’s 2012 study, “Longitudinal Attendance Patterns: Developing High School Dropouts,” shows four distinct patterns of absenteeism in a large urban school district and how they influence whether a student will drop out.

The problem with a study like that is that so many things happen to children between first grade and the time when they drop out of high school that we will never ever be able to say, “Kids are more likely to drop out of high school if they show chronic absenteeism in first grade.”

That’s not what these data mean, but since Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign want to convince us that there’s a real problem with kids staying home from school when they’re sick—asthma was cited as the leading cause of absences for kindergartners—the nonprofits bring up the “achievement gap.”

Because kids don’t live in a vacuum, we simply can’t determine what effect chronic absenteeism in kindergarten has on the difference in academic achievement between Black and White students, between poor and rich students, or between any two subgroups. Probably it has something to do with it, but more likely, they are just two symptoms of the same cause, which is likely poverty or mental illness. Linking dropout rates or reading scores to chronic absenteeism is a complete waste of time, but if the nonprofits didn’t relate school attendance to something we care about, we might not listen.

And this is, ultimately, the bigger problem. We need to care about attendance—not because it’s correlated with the high school dropout rate, with seventh-grade reading scores, or with other variables we measure about our students. We need to care about attendance simply because it’s an important factor in providing a well-rounded education for our students and when students miss school, excused or unexcused, they miss out on opportunities to excel not just in school but in life.

The heartbreak about studies like this is that they always mention low-income students show more of the undesirable behavior, which here is chronic absenteeism, and exhibit lower performance on the dependent variable, which here is reading test scores, high school dropout rate, and so on. It’s a correlation, not a causation, but ignoring that, minority kids and poor kids have more problems in their lives than White rich kids. That’s not news, and I wish we could move past that and start talking about how to provide better educational opportunities for minority kids and poor kids.

Some suggestions are offered for improving attendance of young children, including a success story from a school that created health and dental clinics for students in the building. This allowed students with tooth decay, for example, to come to school and receive treatment from healthcare providers instead of staying at home and not getting any treatment. Other suggestions:

  1. Make the case that chronic early absence matters
  2. Map chronic early absence
  3. Engage partners in unpacking why early absences occur
  4. Learn from positive outliers
  5. Embed action into existing initiatives

Those all sound like such good ideas, but a closer look reveals endless holes in the arguments. For example, in order to “make the case that chronic early absence matters,” school officials are told to cite data. When will nonprofits that aren’t doing any scientific work themselves learn that people don’t care about data? People especially don’t care about achievement gap data, since each individual parent or other stakeholder only has kids in one of the given subgroups.

Source: Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign

What never ceases to amaze me is that data hawks think people actually care about this kind of data. The flaw in that argument—well, one of the flaws, anyway—is that parents, teachers, school leaders, and so on, need to know what they can do to help specific individual students, not just the gap. It’s also a problem that many variables have changed in each of these kids’ lives between the time they were or weren’t chronically absent in kindergarten and took a seventh-grade reading test.

Studies like this carry very little meaning in the grand scheme of things, and I wish reputable sources like the Washington Post would stop wasting our time with them.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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  1. To further underscore what I mean when I say nobody cares about the achievement gap except as a symptom of bigger problems that researchers almost never address, I found an insightful article in The Onion a couple days ago. Keep in mind, The Onion publishes spoofs, so the details are inaccurate, but the publication has an uncanny way of telling the truth about an issue using fabricated details. Here’s an excerpt:

    Saying the sense of equality and self-worth wouldn’t last much longer, local 5-year-old Jake Williams told reporters Tuesday that he was enjoying the final few weeks before the achievement gap between him and children at better-funded schools really kicked in. “Pretty soon, kids my age who live in wealthier districts will start testing better than me in every subject, so I might as well try to make the most of this parity while I have it,” said Williams, …

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