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Parents Call Chronic Absenteeism a Problem, But Most Can’t Define It

A majority of American parents see chronic absenteeism as a “major problem,” but only about a third can correctly define it.

Those are the findings of an NPR/Ipsos poll released June 6, which reveal the uphill challenge schools face in addressing recent trends in poor attendance.

Parents often underestimate how often their own children miss class, said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and the concept of chronic absenteeism, which has emerged as a research and policy priority in the last decade, may be new to them.

“There often is no easily accessible or continually provided supply of information to parents on students’ cumulative absences to date,” he said. “It is hard to remember in April how many days of school your child missed in October and November.”

Rates of chronic absenteeism, most commonly defined as missing 10 percent of school days for excused or unexcused reasons, have spiked since the pandemic.

About 15 percent of students nationwide were deemed chronically absent in the 2018-19 school year, compared to 28 percent in the 2022-23 school year, according to a tracker of state data maintained by the American Enterprise Institute. While many states have seen declines in absenteeism this school year, rates have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Most parents can’t define chronic absenteeism

The pollsters surveyed 1,100 parents of K-12 students and a separate group of 1,100 members of the general public about student attendance between April 26 and May 3.

Sixty-one percent of respondents from the general population identified chronic absenteeism as a major problem, compared to 58 percent of parents of school-aged children. Comparably, 60 percent of general population respondents defined pandemic learning loss as a major problem, compared to 55 percent of parent respondents.

Though most parents identified chronic absenteeism as a concern, most also failed to correctly define it. Thirty-two percent of parent respondents identified the correct definition: missing 10 percent or more of school days. Fifty-one percent of parents set the bar much higher, defining chronic absenteeism as missing 20 percent of school days.

Most parents say their child has missed no more than five school days

Students deemed chronically absent at the end of a 180-day school year will have missed 18 or more days of classes. Attendance researchers say measuring by percentage, rather than a total number of absences, allows educators and parents to flag concerning attendance patterns early. For example, if a student has missed five days of school 50 days into the school year, or 10 percent of learning time, they are on track to be chronically absent.

Asked about their child’s attendance patterns in April or early May, a total of 62 percent of parents said their child had missed five or fewer days.

A March study by researchers at the University of Southern California found parents often undercount their own child’s absences. Among those whose children were chronically absent, just 47 percent said they were concerned, that study found.

“If schools and districts are concerned about children’s absenteeism, they need to reach out to parents clearly, in ways that they understand,” Morgan Polikoff, a professor of education at USC, told Education Week at the time. “And they need to try and get to the bottom of what’s driving absenteeism, which is probably going to differ from kid to kid.”

Illness, safety concerns deemed valid reasons for absences

Parent respondents were most likely to identify illnesses and concern for student safety as acceptable reasons to miss school. While a growing number of schools stress that children should come to school if they have a noncontagious illness and no fever, 51 percent of parents said that sort of illness was a valid reason to stay home.

The findings come as child well-being advocates stress the importance whole-school strategies to boosting attendance like mentorship, attendance campaigns, and hiring social workers to address out-of-school barriers to attending, like a lack of access to transportation.

Asked about a menu of possible strategies to fight absenteeism, parents responding to the poll were most likely to support or strongly support text and email campaigns, increased state funding for school nurses and counselors, and requiring parents of chronically absent students to meet in-person with school staff.

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