Chronic Absenteeism — How could we possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?

Paul Smith
4 min readJun 8, 2016


Note: I wrote this a couple of years ago for another blog which is no longer active, but with the new USDoE’s Civil Rights Data Collection report showing that up to 40% of students might be chronically absent, I thought it might be worth republishing. I’m willing to bet that the numbers we’re seeing are just the tip of the iceberg.

I have a confession to make. When I was in high school I was a less than stellar student. My grades were mediocre, my attendance was spotty and if it weren’t for a small group of studious friends and some amazing teachers I might not have made it through. My mother was a single parent of two teenage boys. She worked long hours as a materials planner during the height of the semiconductor boom, back when “Silicon Valley” was a reference to actual silicon, not software. Busy as she was, it was difficult for her to stay on top of my brother and I and we knew how to play the game. Cutting school wasn’t a thoughtless act of ambivalence, it was a carefully managed effort with conspirators, fantastical fiction and cover-ups. I liken it to Ferris Bueller’s antics or Frank Morris’s efforts in Escape from Alcatraz, constantly chipping away at a jail cell while taking care to not raise any red flags.

Escape artists know how to escape.

Today the game has changed considerably with new technology working for and against students seeking their own escape, but the motivation to skip school is as strong as ever. I think we could all agree that this warrants more attention, but before we start a deep discussion on school design and cultivating intrinsic motivation, we must first take a step back and get an accurate measure of where we’re at by asking: What’s our Chronic Absenteeism Rate (CAR)?

The generally accepted definition of chronic absenteeism is when a student is absent for 10% or more of school days. This includes absences for any reason, including illness, suspension and parent excused absences. This is an important change from precedent which typically focuses only on truancy for intervention. Research shows that when students miss school for any reason, they are at a much greater risk for academic failure and not graduating. A school or district’s CAR is simply the percentage of students who are classified as Chronically Absent.

Identifying chronically absent students seems like it should be simple enough to figure out, but in practice we find that, like my younger self, many students evade red flags by spreading absenteeism out with partial day attendance.

Consider the following example of a typical freshman schedule. Over the course of the week, this student missed 6 classes out of a possible 30.

The challenge is how “Present for the Day” is calculated. In most California districts, students need only be present for a single period to earn a full day’s credit for attendance, so this student would have 100% daily attendance. Other states require at least a half-day to earn a day’s credit, but even in these more strict cases, this student would be counted as present across the board.

I think there’s a simpler solution that would normalize chronic absenteeism calculation across all states. If we simply divide the number of class absences for each student by the total number of possible class meetings, we’d get a far more accurate number that accounts for partial day attendance. So in this example, 6 class absences divided by 30 class meetings is .2 or 20%. If this pattern is consistent across the year, this student would be severely chronically absent.

The next step is to calculate the CAR of the school or district by dividing the total count of chronically absent students by the total student population. Finally, using live attendance data from the SIS, measure CAR for the current year on a daily basis using a line chart, and compare to previous years to see if the school is improving or if there is a trend in absenteeism on the horizon.

Of course, I’m making this sound really easy. Those who work with data from their SIS know how unwieldy it can be. For any medium to large district, a single years’ data could include a million or more records making it nearly impossible to get timely reports. Wouldn’t it be nice if this type of report was built into the SIS? Seems like the sort of thing that should be in there. Shoot… If a company like PowerSchool were to do this, we could have a de-facto standard.



Paul Smith

I write about EdTech and education, but mostly this is where I rant about politics. On Twitter @prsmith2009