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Eliminating Chronic Absenteeism

Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap
By Stephen Kostyo Jessica Cardichon Linda Darling-Hammond
Cover Art for report Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap


This policy brief is part of a larger research report, Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap, that describes how states are using opportunities in ESSA to better support historically underserved students through the thoughtful selection of specific equity measures in their accountability and improvement systems. To this end, the full report suggests focusing attention on students furthest from opportunity by taking steps to 

  • reduce rates of student suspension; 
  • build a positive school climate; 
  • reduce rates of chronic absenteeism; 
  • implement an extended-year graduation rate; and
  • expand access to a college- and career-ready curriculum. 
This brief focuses on state efforts to eliminate chronic absenteeism. For the full report, go here


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in December 2015, gives states the opportunity to create new approaches to school accountability and continuous improvement. These approaches, if informed by well-chosen indicators of school opportunity and performance, have the potential to create more inclusive and equitable learning environments for historically underserved students.

Along with measures of academic achievement (student performance on state assessments in English language arts and mathematics, which may include growth in proficiency), graduation rates, and English language proficiency, ESSA requires states to include at least one indicator of school quality or student success (SQSS).

All indicators must provide valid, reliable, and comparable information within each state’s accountability system. States then use school performance on these indicators to identify schools for either comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) or targeted support and improvement (TSI). Districts with such schools can use data from statewide indicators to inform the needs assessments and school improvement plans required under ESSA. States can also select additional indicators to use as part of their broader continuous school improvement efforts across all schools, regardless of identification status.

Now that all states have received approval from the U.S. Department of Education for their plans for statewide accountability and improvement systems, a number of states are taking advantage of the opportunities provided by ESSA to measure the extent to which their students are supported and provided with equitable educational opportunities.

This brief specifies which states are making efforts to eliminate chronic absenteeism in their ESSA plans and describes how some states intend to measure and use information from this indicator to create more equitable and inclusive learning environments for all students.

Eliminating Chronic Absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism—often defined as missing 10% or more of the school year—negatively impacts students’ school performance, high school graduation rates, and students’ overall success in adulthood. For example, students who are chronically absent score lower on tests, on average, than students with better attendance, after controlling for race or socioeconomic status.Ginsburg, A., Jordan, P., & Chang, H. (2014). Absences add up: How school attendance influences student success. San Francisco, CA: Attendance Works. Chronic absenteeism in early grades has been found to predict students’ levels of success in later grades and the likelihood of dropping out of school. Students of color are disproportionately chronically absent compared to their White peers. Latinx students are 11% more likely to be chronically absent, African American students are 36% more likely, and Native American and Pacific Islander students are over 65% more likely to miss significant school time.U.S. Department of Education. Chronic absenteeism in the nation’s schools: An unprecedented look at a hidden educational crisis. Washington, DC: Author. 

Ensuring that all students receive the support they need to remain present and engaged in learning throughout their k–12 experience begins with obtaining an accurate picture of how much instructional time students are losing and why. Because individual chronically absent students are out of school on different days, chronic absences could be masked by average daily attendance data. For example, a school with 90% average daily attendance for the year might have 30% or more of its students chronically absent. Chronic absenteeism is a more accurate measure for tracking individual student attendance. 

Data from this indicator can illuminate patterns in student absences by school, grade, and student subgroup. Once staff identify the reasons behind these patterns, they can implement interventions that address issues ranging from health concerns, student disengagement, anxiety, and fear of bullying to lack of transportation, homelessness, and students’ efforts to help their families by working or caring for children at home. Schools have reduced chronic absenteeism by partnering disengaged students with mentors or arranging for teacher home visits to build relationships and develop solutions between students, parents, and schools. Chronic absenteeism data can also inform systems for teachers and administrators to intervene early when students miss class.Cardichon, J., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Advancing educational equity for underserved youth: How new state accountability systems can support school inclusion and student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. 

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia use a measure of chronic absenteeism in their accountability and improvement systems (see Figure 1). Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia are using this as an indicator to help identify schools for support and improvement. One additional state, Kansas, is using rates of chronic absenteeism to inform efforts in schools already identified for support and improvement. The remaining 14 states are reporting rates of chronic absenteeism as required by ESSA.

Selected State Approaches: Connecticut, Indiana, and Virginia 

Connecticut includes chronic absenteeism as a k–12 accountability measure and set a goal of cutting average statewide rates to 5%.Jordan, P. (2017). Who’s in: Chronic absenteeism under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Washington, DC: Georgetown University, Future-Ed. To do so, the state uses a multitiered approach that emphasizes early prevention, such as providing mentors who serve as caring adults who remind students of the importance of school attendance and create tailored attendance plans. Students who need more intensive interventions receive case management. Connecticut collects chronic absenteeism data and makes it publicly available through its reporting system and has built in checks to ensure the quality of the data. These checks include creating district and school attendance review teams, conducting data audits, and routinely analyzing attendance data.Connecticut State Department of Education. (2017). Reducing chronic absence in Connecticut’s schools: A prevention and intervention guide for schools and districts. Hartford, CT: Author. 

As a part of its federal accountability system, Indiana uses a chronic absenteeism indicator to measure both the share of students who are attending school regularly and those who are improving their attendance. Schools are provided with individual student data so they are able to intervene with students whose attendance is low and not improving.Indiana Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Consolidated State Plan. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Department of Education. Indiana’s chronic absenteeism indicator also rewards schools for students who meet a statewide definition of a “model attendee,” which is defined by the state as either a student who attends at least 96% of the days he or she was enrolled during the school year (persistent attendance) or a student who attends 3% more days than he or she did in the previous school year (improved attendance). The state’s goal is for at least 80% of students to be model attendees. As is the case with the definition of the model attendee, to control for consistency across the state, Indiana created a uniform definition of what counts as an absence. The state’s uniform definition of “attendance” includes being physically present in school or at another location at which the school’s educational program is being conducted (for example, a field trip or other school-sanctioned event). 

Like many states, Virginia is using chronic absenteeism as an SQSS indicator for all levels. Based on research, the state set a long-term statewide goal for all students and all subgroups to have an average chronic absenteeism rate of no more than 10% by 2024. (In the 2014–15 school year, the statewide average chronic absenteeism rate was 18.3%.) Additional research regarding chronic absenteeism in Virginia suggests that in order to achieve equitable attendance among all subgroups, districts have to focus resources on high school students, low-performing students, and students who move between schools.Miller, L., & Johnson, A. (2016). Chronic absenteeism in Virginia and the challenged school divisions: A descriptive analysis of patterns and correlates. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, EdPolicyWorks.

Virginia is working to achieve this goal through a partnership with Attendance Works by creating a set of online modules that help teachers and administrators stress the importance of attendance in their communications to students and parents.Virginia Department of Education. (2016). Attendance & truancy among Virginia students. Richmond, VA: Author. Staff trainings to identify strategies that can improve attendance and reduce chronic absenteeism are also planned. In its data analysis, Virginia will focus on the absenteeism of students experiencing homelessness to identify additional supports for these students and their families. Additional supports include providing access to school social workers, school psychologists, and coordinators to help homeless students attend school regularly, especially during times those students are most likely to be chronically absent, such as when they are transitioning between schools.Virginia Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Consolidated State Plan. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education.  

Policy Considerations for Implementation 

States and districts can better measure and help reduce chronic absenteeism by:

  • Creating clear definitions of what counts as an absence. Having a uniform definition allows for easier data comparison and analysis. This includes developing and maintaining a consistent definition of partial-day absence and how it counts toward overall attendance. For example, if one district aggregates class periods missed and another district does not keep track of periods missed unless a student has missed a half day or more, then comparisons may misrepresent student attendance patterns.Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center. (2016). Preventing missed opportunity: Taking collective action to confront chronic absence. San Francisco, CA: Attendance Works. 
  • Including both in-school and out-of-school suspensions in the definition of what counts as an absence, because both result in lost learning time. 
  • Ensuring that rates of absences are measured and patterns of chronic absence are addressed at all grade levels.
  • Incorporating chronic absenteeism data into early warning systems that also measure discipline incidents, course performance, and credit accumulation. These systems allow staff to identify students at risk of dropping out and to examine performance on each of these indicators within the context of other related indicators in order to diagnose concerns and provide timely interventions.Rafa, A. (2017). Chronic absenteeism: A key indicator of student success. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.
  • Sponsoring professional development and forming communities of practice among educators to share resources on how to connect schools with integrated student supports, develop reliable means of monitoring attendance, and create schoolwide systems to reduce chronic absence. 

Resources on Chronic Absenteeism

To see a state-by-state summary on how states are using a Chronic Absenteeism indicator, see page 6 of this downloadable brief or explore this interactive map for individual state information.


Eliminating Chronic Absenteeism: Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap by Stephen Kostyo, Jessica Cardichon, and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation. LPI’s work in this area is also supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation; and the Sandler Foundation.