Not present, not learning: Tracking chronic absenteeism and other nonacademic factors

Elementary classroom full of students and one raising his hand

Many of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) headlines focus on shifting power from the federal government to local states and schools. States will have more autonomy in defining their assessment and accountability systems under the new law, though general guidelines are still provided. The law also requires schools and school districts to collect and report new information such as chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is not explicitly defined in the law, but the Attendance Works organization defines it as a student who misses 10% or more school days in a year. Missing 18 or more days of school, excused or unexcused, is associated with lower academic achievement and higher risk of dropout. Accordingly, in October 2015, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Every Student Every Day initiative to reduce chronic absenteeism. Attendance is so important to student success that some states, such as California, may include chronic absenteeism data in their new accountability system.

In addition to this new attendance measure, ESSA also requires reporting several other measures of school quality, climate, and safety such as rates of in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement, and incidences of violence including bullying and harassment. Why are these behavior and climate measures important to track? The most often cited justifications are based on research linking these factors to academic achievement and dropout risk. Students who frequently skip class miss learning new material, fall further behind, and eventually stop coming at all.  

While achievement and graduation are two significant outcomes, I’d like to highlight two other reasons why it is important to pay attention to these indicators. First, tracking these data is critical for equity. Research shows African-American students are suspended and expelled much more often than white students. In some school districts, the African-American suspension rates are five times higher than their representation in the population. That means at a school with a 10% African-American population, this group would account for half of the suspensions. Overrepresentation of African Americans among those suspended and expelled holds both for general education students and special education students, which prompted the U.S. Education Department to propose a new Equity in IDEA rule in February. Tracking and reporting suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary actions provides transparency and affords opportunities to address inequities.

The second reason behavior and climate are important is because they are related to college- and career-readiness outcomes. Although the U.S. graduation rate continues to increase, students are arriving at college underprepared for postsecondary study. High school graduates are being referred to non-credit bearing courses at significant rates, and employers are dissatisfied with the preparation of the workforce. Though content knowledge is one area where students can increase proficiency, academic and workplace success are also affected by a variety of non-academic indicators, including behavior and climate. For example, a 2010 meta-analytic study concluded college class attendance was the best predictor of academic performance. In the workplace, attendance and punctuality are also critical, and a negative work climate can damage productivity.

What other nonacademic factors are predictive of future success? We have studied this question in Pearson’s Center for College & Career Success. Using a nationally representative U.S. dataset, we evaluated the link between academic and nonacademic middle school factors and college and career readiness. Our research also showed behavior factors as one key indicator in predicting student readiness and success. Not only were attendance and suspension metrics significant, but also was information related to classroom effort and homework completion. Another critical indicator was student motivation. For example, students with higher postsecondary aspirations were more likely to be college ready upon graduation. In addition, those with an internal locus of control – or a belief in their ability to control their own outcomes – were more likely to be on a path toward success. These results are similar to other studies showing conscientiousness, grit, perseverance, and growth mindsets are all associated with academic and workplace success.

Many of these data are not appropriate for accountability measures, but they still provide valuable diagnostic information. These indicators can illuminate areas of strength and weakness for students, parents, and educators and form the basis of personalized intervention recommendations. Like academic achievement, nonacademic indicators can be measured and progress tracked. In order to meet ESSA’s goal where every student succeeds, preparation needs to go beyond content knowledge to include nonacademic skills.

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About the Author

Katie McClartyKatie McClarty leads of the Center for College & Career Success. She heads a team of researchers in planning and executing research in support of the Center mission, which is to (1) identify and measure the skills needed to be successful in college and careers, (2) determine pathways for students to be college and career ready, (3) track their progress along the pathway, and (4) evaluate effective ways to keep students on track. Dr. McClarty has authored papers, chapters, and presentations related to college readiness, standard setting, assessment design, computer-based testing, interface design, teacher effectiveness, and next generation assessments. Her work has been published in journals such as the American Psychologist, Research in Higher Education, Applied Measurement in Education, Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, and Educational Researcher. Dr. McClarty holds a doctorate degree in social and personality psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.