Issue Highlights: Facts & Figures

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM HAS BEEN DRIVEN DOWN IN RECENT YEARS, FROM 23 PERCENT OF K TO 5 STUDENTS IN 2009 TO 19 PERCENT IN 2013. The numbers, however, are still very high. Some 87,000 children were chronically absent in the 2012–13 school year. And in many schools, the numbers have not improved. (See “Measuring the Weight of Poverty,” page 10.)

ATTENDANCE JUMPS UP AND DOWN IN EVERY SCHOOL, BUT THE DIPS ARE MUCH DEEPER IN POOR COMMUNITIES. School principals have long argued that certain attendance factors are out of their control. The biggest of these is weather. Heavy snow, bitter cold or steady rain can send attendance diving throughout the city. But a lot of other factors affect attendance as well, and those “bad attendance days” tend to hit low-income communities harder than the city as a whole. (See “The City’s Day-to-Day Attendance Jumps Up and Down Like a Heartbeat,” page 32.)

MANY SCHOOLS DEAL WITH PERSISTENTLY HIGH RATES OF CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM: Nearly 130 of the 748 elementary and K to 8 schools that the Center for New York City Affairs studied struggle with “persistent chronic absenteeism.” (On average, one third or more of students had been chronically absent over five years.) There are 36 schools where the number of chronically absent students has been, on average, above 40 percent over the past five years. (See “Measuring the Weight of Poverty,” page 10.)

IN EFFORTS TO HELP SCHOOLS, IT'S IMPORTANT TO LOOK BEYOND FREE LUNCH AND POVERTY MEASURES. A 2013 study in Philadelphia concluded that homelessness, child maltreatment and a mother’s level of education were the strongest predictors of a child’s school achievement. The team also calculated a “cumulative risk gap” for each student for a separate study. The results were “incredible,” says John Fantuzzo, the team’s lead author. The risk gap number largely predicted each student’s reading score, he says. “These risks have a unique impact on achievement.” (See “Measuring the Weight of Poverty,” page 10.)

THE CENTER'S "RISK LOAD" TOOL COMPILES DATA FOR 18 POVERTY-RELATED FACTORS THAT MAY IMPACT STUDENTS' EDUCATION. From teacher turnover to the number of students who are homeless, our analysis shows that the connection between chronic absenteeism and the characteristics of deep poverty are clear. We also found that the risk load and risk profiles vary greatly from school to school, even among schools with similar simple poverty-level measures. City efforts to improve support to high-poverty schools should be designed with a school’s risk load and risk profile in mind. (See “Chronic Absenteeism Reflects the Community- and School-Level Risks,” page 20.)

THERE ARE IMPORTANT IMPLICATIONS FOR MAYOR DE BLASIO AS HIS TEAM ROLLS OUT EXPENSIVE EFFORTS TO IMPROVE ACADEMICA AND ENGAGEMENT IN HIGH-POVERTY SCHOOLS: As the mayor launches initiatives like universal, full-day Pre-K (at a cost of $300 million), a major expansion of middle grade after-school programs and plans to open 100 new community schools, Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, asks, “Are you doing this to target your most needy kids?” If that’s a goal, the city should use chronic absenteeism rates to help determine which schools and communities most need the help, and educators and community partners should use lists of which kids miss too much school to help target the city’s new programs. (See “Measuring the Weight of Poverty,” page 10.)

ABSENTEEISM IS A STRONG PREDICTOR OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS FOR STUDENTS AND THE SCHOOL: Our analysis found that absenteeism rates were more useful for predicting a school’s test scores than other common student measures, including whether a student was in special education, an English language learner or receiving free lunch. The Center’s analysis also suggests that absenteeism can have a substantial effect on the school as a whole. On average, the number of students passing the New York State tests goes down by 1.3 percent for every percentage point increase in chronic absenteeism. (See “Back to School,” page 22.)