Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, June 4, 2015

School absenteeism correlates to lower test scores, analysis shows

Sam Matteson

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The report “The Effects of Early Chronic Absenteeism on Third-Grade Academic Achievement Measures” is available online.

Children missing school likely means they score lower on academic achievement tests, a new study from the La Follette School of Public Affairs finds.

In addition, students of color and those from low-income families are more likely to be absent from school and to experience greater losses in achievement for each missed day of school, the report finds.

Students in the Workshop in Public Affairs taught by Donald Moynihan produced the report for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“Absenteeism matters to subsequent school performance,” says Sam Matteson, one of the report’s authors. “Particularly in early years, consistent attendance helps students lay a foundation for the development of more complex skills. Poor student attendance is a reliable predictor of failure to graduate from high school, as well as the odds of early college success.”

Using data from all students in public schools in Wisconsin, the team evaluated the impact of first-grade absences on student achievement on a third-grade standardized test. The study of more than 340,000 students controlled for socioeconomic characteristics including income, English as a second language status, and disability, as well as a gender and ethnicity as reported by school districts.

“The harm is more likely in math than reading,” says Matteson, who wrote the report with Richard Coelho, Sierra Fischer, Forrest McKnight and Travis Schwartz. All were in the Master of Public Affairs degree program. “After controlling for the main factors we identified, each day of absence correlated with a 0.4-point reduction in math scores and a 0.2-point reduction in reading scores for the typical student. A student who is absent for 14 days, twice the average number of absences statewide, will score 4 to 7 points lower than students missing the average number of days.”

The students also analyzed the data by income, ethnic and racial group, and geography. “In Wisconsin, students who are from low-income households or who are members of an ethnic minority experience the highest rates of absenteeism,” Matteson says. “Hispanic and black students were overrepresented in the chronically absent population, with 15 percent and 26 percent of that group while each represented 10 percent of the general population. Low-income students represented 78 percent of chronically absent population. Also, the problem is unevenly distributed geographically, concentrated in regions of rural northwest and central Wisconsin, on Native American reservations in Lac du Flambeau and Menominee, and in Milwaukee Public Schools and the Racine Unified School District.”

The report’s findings are significant, Moynihan says. “The report builds on research that shows that absenteeism has negative effects on student educational and other outcomes. But there is relatively little research on the effects of absenteeism among younger students or among students in Wisconsin. The report contributes to our understanding by providing evidence that absenteeism is associated with lower student performance, controlling for other observable factors such as socioeconomic status. The findings also show that absenteeism is not just more prevalent among poorer and minority students, but that the effects of absenteeism is greater on performance for these groups.”

DPI will use the report to motivate a further look into the impact of early absences on student performance, says DPI research analyst Jared Knowles, who worked with the graduate students, all of whom were in the Master of Public Affairs degree program. “This further work will include identifying the best ways to illustrate the impact of early absenteeism to education practitioners, and to communicate that information to schools and districts in a variety of venues, including state education conferences and technical assistance provided by the department.”