Panel Paper: School Absenteeism in the First Decade of Education: Patterns, Correlates, and Outcomes in Adolescence

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Harding - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Arya Ansari and Robert C. Pianta, University of Virginia

As researchers and policymakers embark on closing the achievement gap among our nation’s children, growing interest has been paid to the implications of absenteeism from school as one source of inequality. Indeed, school absenteeism is an early warning sign: students who are more frequently absent are at greater risk for school difficulty. Despite the fact that absenteeism starts early, there have not been many long-term evaluations of school absences across the country that have tracked individual children’s school attendance and, subsequently, their educational success and well-being through early to mid-adolescence. We respond to this gap in the literature by taking advantage of a large and diverse sample of 1,326 children and families who participated in NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development between kindergarten and age 15. More specifically, we address the following questions.

  1. How frequently are children absent between kindergarten and eighth grade?
  2. To what extent is absenteeism in the early years associated with absenteeism later on?
  3. To what degree is absenteeism in the first decade of children’s education associated with their achievement and social-behavior at age 15?

To address these questions, we use regression methods that adjust for over 40 covariates that capture a range of child (e.g., skills prior to kindergarten entry), family (e.g., education and family structure) and neighborhood (e.g., unemployment rates) characteristics. Seventeen dimensions of adolescent’s achievement (e.g., GPA, coursework, math/literacy assessments, educational aspirations) and social-behavior (e.g., risky behavior, sexual risk-taking, internalizing symptoms, externalizing symptoms) were assessed at the age of 15 through a variety of sources, including direct assessments, administrative records, self-report, and parent report. Yearly absenteeism data were available from school records.

Results revealed that students missed roughly 4.29% of the kindergarten year, which translates to roughly eight days of school missed (SD= 6.95). The rates of absenteeism from school did not dramatically change over the course of the next eight years of schooling, with children missing anywhere between 3.48-4.26% of school. School absenteeism in the first decade of education was also found to be fairly stable: earlier school absences alone explained roughly 35% of the variance in subsequent absences (ps< .001). As a point of contrast, all of the other covariates only explained 5-7% of the variance in absenteeism. Rates of chronic absenteeism (defined as missing ≥10% of the year) were also somewhat consistent over time, but peaked at 8% in kindergarten and again in sixth and eighth grade.

Although few children were ultimately chronically absent, students who had a weaker attendance record in the early years, in turn, had weaker attendance later on and, therefore, missing school as early as kindergarten and first grade was linked with less optimal outcomes at age 15 for 13 of the 17 outcomes of interest (effect sizes = 0.10-0.25). When taken together, the results of this investigation provide insight into the trends and outcomes of absenteeism across the first decade of school and suggest that early absenteeism can create a cycle of poor attendance that has downstream educational consequences.