Student Absences: How They Hurt & What Works

A new report issued by Teachers College of Columbia University, written by Michael A. Gottfried and Seth Gershson and issued on May 1, 2015 concludes that student absences do matter.  “When students are not in school, we believe that they miss out on learning opportunity and forgo valuable social/developmental activities.  When they return to school they are said to be behind and often feel alienated.  Moreover, student absences may affect teachers and classmates by disrupting routines and causing teachers to spend time helping student to ‘catch up’ following an absence spell.”


Before deciding what to do, we need a solid research base with which to make evidenced-based decisions. The report analyses two studies one from elementary and middle school data from the Philadelphia School district which estimates the relationship between absences and test scores. A second longitudinal report on third through fifth grades was done in North Carolina’s public schools to study the association between student absences and academic achievement.


Both studies found evidence of statistically significant negative effects of student absences on academic achievement.  The North Carolina studies found that 10 additional absences reduce math achievement by about 6% of a test-score standard deviation, while the Massachusetts study find an even larger harmful effect of student absences.


What Works?


The research reaffirms earlier research that argues that chronic absenteeism is a systems problem that needs to be addressed in the early grades and not merely in the middle or high school level. “While reducing absences has the potential to improve academic achievement, with relatively low program costs. Little is known about what interventions and educational inputs improve student attendance. Improving primary school students’ attendance may be particularly important, as school disengagement and chronic absence problems can occur as early as the first grade.   Improving attendance in primary school may improve attendance in secondary school, postsecondary education, and untimely in the labor market. The study concludes that primary school teachers have significant effects on student absences.”