Iowa students who have been chronically absent during any year of early-elementary school are less likely than their peers who rarely miss school to be reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Third grade reading is an important marker for future academic success, including high school graduation.

A new report from the Child and Family Policy Center finds that low-income students, students of color, students receiving Special Education and English Language Learner services are all more likely than their peers to miss substantial amounts of school in their first years of school.

Using data from the Iowa Department of Education, CFPC analyzed attendance patterns of over 37,000 students who started kindergarten in the 2010-11 school year through third grade in 2013-14. Chronic absence rates were highest in kindergarten, when 9 percent of students—over 3,500 children—were chronically absent, then improved through third grade, when 4.5 percent of that cohort—nearly 1,500 children—were chronically absent.

A student is considered chronically absent if he or she misses 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. In Iowa, that means 18 days or more in a 180-day school year, the equivalent of nearly a month of school. Unlike truancy in later school years, early-elementary absences are usually excused.

The challenge is widespread. One-third of Iowa districts and nearly 40 percent of elementary schools have rates of chronic absence among kindergartners in excess of 10 percent.

“Given the focus in our state on improving educational outcomes, and with new third grade retention requirements looming next year, this is an issue that merits focused attention,” said Anne Discher, a senior research associate with CFPC. “A kid who is not at school is a kid who is not learning.”

Read the full, 20 page report, which includes an executive summary.

Iowa communities taking steps to reduce chronic absence, but more to be done

A group of Iowa communities has been on the leading edge of addressing barriers to third grade reading, including chronic absence. Currently 11 Iowa communities are part of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national effort to ensure that more children in low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, career and active citizenship.

The Campaign, in partnership with the Iowa Council of Foundations, sponsors the Iowa Attendance Learning Network, a peer-learning network that lets communities learn best practices from peers and outside experts, review attendance data with key community partners and inform state attendance policy and practice. Participating in the network are Ames, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Valley, Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Dubuque, Dyersville, Grinnell, Jackson County, Marshalltown and the Quad Cities.

“Chronic absence is an early-warning sign that a student is getting off track,” said Becky Miles-Polka, who coordinates Campaign activities in Iowa. “Schools can reduce rates of chronic absence in these years by better monitoring attendance and marshaling community resources to intervene when problems first arise.”

Communities across the state are taking concrete steps to reduce rates of chronic attendance. Council Bluffs, Des Moines and Dubuque were recognized last month by the national Campaign as Pacesetters for their efforts focused on improving school attendance. Ames, Marshalltown and the Quad Cities were also honored for other strategies to assure every student is reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Successful strategies to improve attendance include engaging families to help them address attendance barriers. These include chronic illnesses like asthma, untreated dental problems that cause pain, high levels of mobility, neighborhood safety, and sometimes parents’ own history of negative school experiences.

Special attention is needed to reduce high rates of chronic attendance among communities of color, which reflect not only relatively high rates of poverty among these groups, but special challenges stemming from historical and current marginalization and discrimination.

In order to move the needle on chronic absence statewide, every Iowa community has a role. All districts should calculate and report on chronic absence at both the district and individual school levels and by grade, race, ethnicity, home language and income. The Iowa Department of Education should support districts in doing so through technical assistance and other tools. Administrators, principals and teachers across the state should have access to enhanced professional development on chronic absence.

Finally, schools need adequate staffing and support—beyond technical assistance (which is important but not alone sufficient)—to address the range of child health and family needs contributing to attendance problems and to build welcoming relationships with families.

The Child and Family Policy Center is a Des Moines-based research and advocacy organization promoting outcome-based policies that improve child well-being.

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  • Great work! Our community has really benefited from the GLR Campaign connections and resources around attendance as well. It is helpful to have the tools from Attendance Works and GLR
    to help move this conversation forward. Keep it up!
  • It's wonderful to see Iowa make exciting progress toward addressing chronic absence. In Oregon we face similarly high rates of chronic absence. Having the data and crafting targeted interventions is a great first step.
  • Congratulations to CFPC and all the Iowa GLR communities for the continued focus on reducing chronic absence. It's truly been a collaborative effort with so many partners working together to raise awareness every year by celebrating Attendance Awareness Month and meeting to share effective practices.
  • This is great news! We really like its focus on K-3, because so many absences in these early grades are excused. Families need to get the right information about why regular attendance is important for student success in every grade level. We've also posted a blog about the new report:
  • We are excited for the release of this data. It will help as we continue to bring local leaders and state partners together around the issue of chronic absence in Iowa.
    • So much exciting progress underway in Iowa! Thanks to you and the outstanding Iowa team.
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