Research proves what we know from common sense: Showing up to class is critical to succeeding in school. What is less understood is the critical importance of looking at chronic absence data starting in elementary school. Far too many cities and schools focus on truancy in high school or, at best, middle school, without looking at how many young children in the early grades are headed off track academically because they are missing too much school due to excused or unexcused absences.
Research also shows that early absences hamper a child’s ability to read and exacerbate achievement gaps, especially for poor children and minorities who typically have higher rates of absenteeism. It is critical that counties look at the right numbers. It requires looking more deeply into attendance patterns that can explain why students are missing so much school. Elementary students, especially in the early grades, are not likely to be skipping school willfully. Instead, many of their absences are excused as they deal with health, safety, transportation and other challenges that keep them from class.
Promoting attendance in the early grades is critical to sustaining the school readiness skills that preschool or Head Start programs can help children to develop. When chronic absence was taken into account, students who arrived at school academically ready to learn— but then missed 10 percent of their kindergarten and first grade years—scored, on average, 60 points below similar students with good attendance on third-grade reading tests. In math, the gap was nearly 100 points.