Chronic School Absenteeism: More to the Story

On Sep 18, Charles Wohlforth posted an opinion piece in the ADN with a headline that read:  “A fourth of Alaska students are chronically absent. No wonder test scores are so bad.”   In his piece he says, “If parents are satisfied with ignorance, so will their children be.” Sorry Charles, there’s a bit more to the story beyond “bad” parents.

Students who miss more than 10% of school days are considered “chronically absent.”  According to a 2016 study from The Hamilton Project, Alaska has the 3rd highest rate of chronic school absenteeism in the US (the only two places that did worse were Washington State and Washington DC). With our high rate of absenteeism it’s easy to see why Mr. Wohlforth could jump to his conclusion that Alaska’s low test scores are a result of kids skipping school.  Let’s dig a little deeper:

Washington State, with a slightly worse rate of chronic absenteeism than Alaska, was ranked 5th in the US in 2015 NAEP test scores while Alaska was 47th. On average, Washington state students scored 9.7 points higher on 4th and 8th grade reading and math NAEP tests than Alaska students of the same economic strata. Given that students are expected to improve about 10 points per year on NAEP measurements, Washington students are achieving around one entire school year ahead of their peers in Alaska in NAEP testing, despite their slightly worse attendance.

Kids in Washington DC have a chronic absentee rate 21% higher than Alaska’s rate. Despite that appalling absentee rate, the DC average 2015 NAEP test scores are 3.9 NAEP points better than kids Alaska — or three to four months more advanced in achievement.

Don’t get me wrong; chronic absenteeism clearly hurts student outcomes. All states would certainly achieve at higher levels if they could find ways to keep more kids in class more often.

This is where public policy comes in. The trend of rampant absenteeism seems to be a regional West Coast phenomenon.   The four states with the worst chronic attendance figures in the US are, (in order) Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Hawaii. The exception to that Pacific coast trend is California. While every other Pacific state has a chronic absentee rate between 19.7-24.6%, California, with the highest percentage of English Language Learners in the country (four times the US average), has the 9th best chronic absentee rate in the US at 11.3%.

What’s different in California? Do parents in California somehow love their kids more? No. The more likely difference is financial incentives. California is the only one of the five Pacific states that incentivizes consistent attendance by funding schools based on daily attendance. All the other Pacific states fund their K-12 programs based on small number of enrollment days instead of daily attendance. In the case of Alaska, school funding is based on the number of enrolled students during the 20 school-day count period ending on the fourth Friday of October. After that date, Alaska schools have no financial stake in making sure kids attend.

Our high levels of chronic school absenteeism hurt Alaska’s kids, though it’s not the biggest factor holding them back.  The misallocation of resources favoring buildings and bureaucracies over classroom operations, and lack of healthy competition to spur improvements and innovations that are taking place in other states that spend much less on K-12 are much bigger concerns.

In all, I’m bullish on the prospects for improvements in K-12 in Alaska. Our kids are just as bright as students anywhere else; our teachers are just as dedicated; our parents are just as loving and our taxpayers more generous than most when it comes to educating our kids. With the right policy incentives, I have faith we can “right the education ship” for the next generation of Alaskans.

Bob Griffin
Education Research Fellow, Alaska Policy Forum