Back to School Absenteeism Blues – Part I

Attendance Awareness

Graphic from Attendance Works


I have never been a big fan of School “Perfect Attendance” Awards. As a somewhat sickly child, I could never get one of those things, and it invoked in me a somewhat disproportionate sense of injustice: Why should somebody get a certificate merely for his/her ability to evade colds? As I grew older, the public health implications of rewarding “perfect attendance” became more apparent as I worked with sick co-workers who should have stayed home but instead went to work and proceeded to infect their colleagues. I am also embarrassed to admit that I myself have been guilty of such behavior.

However, today’s post does not focus on perfect attendance, but rather its opposite: chronic absenteeism in schools. There has been increased attention on this issue – our county government even has an “Attendance Matters” campaign, and for good reason: research shows that student performance and attendance are inherently linked. There are studies that show that:

Note that in the last bullet, I referred to “attendance data” as opposed to “attendance rate”. There is good reason for this.

The one indicator that we can obtain regarding school attendance is the school attendance rates from the New York State Education Department (NYSED). NYSED calculates the annual attendance rate for each school/district by “…dividing the school’s (or district’s) total actual attendance by the total possible attendance for a school year. A school’s (or district’s) actual attendance is the sum of the number of students in attendance on each day the school (or district’s schools) was open during the school year. Possible attendance is the sum of the number of enrolled students who should have been in attendance on each day the school (or schools) was open during the school year.” (Definition – straight from the NYSED glossary.)

By using this method of calculation, we can use attendance rates to monitor absenteeism, but these rates alone cannot tell us if absenteeism is due to either 1) many students missing a few days of school (for example, a particularly contagious virus could run through the district; the impact of Hurricane Sandy on school schedules comes to mind too), or 2)  a small, but significant, number of students are generating the excessive absences.

More attention is being paid to another indicator, the chronic absenteeism rate, which calculates the percent of students who miss 10% or more of school. Truancy rates, (for which there is no defined standard, but which generally measures students’ unexcused absences) are also under consideration, but normally just apply to older students. In addition, the very nature of the truancy rate focuses much of the attention on behavioral issues, when there may be other factors that are leading to student absences, such as health issues, unsafe neighborhoods, and unreliable transportation. Unfortunately, the NY State Education Department (NYSED) does not report either on chronic absenteeism or truancy rates at this point in time.

But even with these limitations, one can begin to find a story when attendance rates are charted out by school districts. You may want to note a couple things about the following chart, which does exactly that…

  • Note that the lowest school district attendance rate is 92%. The highest school attendance rate is 97%. The miniscule spread in attendance rates makes it difficult to discern which districts deserve more attention. It may also create a sense of false security for people who are not aware of the limitations of the attendance rate as an indicator.
  • To visualize the spread between the school districts, we changed the start of the x-axis from zero, which is the standard for bar charts, to ninety. Although we normally stay away from chart axis voodoo, in this case this was the only to perceive any differentiation between school districts.
  • In 2012, there were six school districts with attendance rates below 95%. The 95% mark is important because it has been used traditionally as an indicator of good attendance. The six school districts are:
    • Mount Vernon (92)
    • New Rochelle (92)
    • Rye City (92)
    • Peekskill (93)
    • Port Chester-Rye (93)
    • Yonkers (93)

    All six of these districts reported attendance rates below 95 percent for the years 2010 and 2011 as well. We also note that Rye City School District, generally known as one of the higher performing school districts in Westchester, is on this list.

  • For those who care for these sorts of things, the average and median attendance rate in 2012 across Westchester County School Districts (excluding the Special Act School Districts), was 96%.

In our next post, we will go even deeper into the data (which you can download from the NYSED website here) and see what we can find.

One comment on “Back to School Absenteeism Blues – Part I

  1. Pingback: Are Westchester Children Back in School? A Portrait of Chronic Absence - Westchester Children's Association

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