- Executive Summary
- Chapter 1: Update on the Attendance Crisis
- Chapter 2: Fulfilling the Promise of LCFF for California’s At-Risk Student Populations
- Chapter 3: Suspensions Exacerbate the Attendance Crisis
- Chapter 4: Prevention & Intervention Efforts
- Chapter 5: Signs of Progress & Return on Investments in Improving Attendance
- Return to Attorney General's Site
Update on the Attendance Crisis in California
In California, a student is truant if he/she is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on 3 occasions in a school year.
A student is habitually truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for 5 days during a school year.
A student is chronically truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for at least 10% of the school year (California Education Code § 48263.6).
In California, chronic absence is defined as being absent for any reason (excused or unexcused) for at least 10% of the school year (California Education Code Ed § 60901(c)(1)). Thus, in a 175- or 180-day school year, a student who misses 18 days of school or more is chronically absent.
Last year, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris released the first statewide report on California’s elementary school truancy and absenteeism crisis, In School + On Track 2013. The report made clear that one of the most important and influential factors in improving educational outcomes is increasing student attendance. Along with the efforts of many important partner organizations, the 2013 report has begun to raise awareness about truancy and chronic absence in elementary school, and to move policy and practice to better serve California’s students and improve school attendance.
This year, Attorney General Harris is proud to release the 2014 update to In School + On Track. To gather information for the 2014 report,1 we:
- Surveyed school district leaders from across the state;
- Conducted a review of district Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) to better understand the ways in which school districts are reducing, or plan to reduce, truancy and chronic absence, particularly for at-risk student populations;
- Partnered with leading organizations in the state to gather more comprehensive attendance records from school districts than are publicly available; and
- Analyzed efforts by law enforcement to combat elementary school truancy.
The 2014 report includes findings that indicate many school districts across the state are improving their efforts to curb the attendance crisis. Now it is up to the state to do its part to better support these districts, by upgrading our statewide infrastructure to provide more comprehensive attendance records to each district, so that they can make informed decisions about how to serve each of their students at the local level.
Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is calculated by dividing the total days of student attendance by the total days of instruction. ADA is then multiplied by a certain dollar amount, which varies by grade, to determine the amount of funding a district or county will received for the year.
In this chapter, we report on the immense cost of truancy and absenteeism to school districts in our state and present the most recent attendance data available. Absenteeism costs school districts in California millions of dollars each year, and the rates of truancy and chronic absence remained stagnant between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, the two years leading up to last year’s In School + On Track 2013.
The official truancy rates reported in this chapter cover years before last year’s truancy report and before an increased statewide focus on improving attendance in the 2013-2014 school year. Therefore, it is premature to assess the impact of the past year’s efforts. These rates also predate any efforts districts have described to us in the survey to upgrade their attendance tracking systems, programs and policies. As districts and the state upgrade their infrastructure to track and monitor attendance, the data from the 2013 and the 2014 reports provide a rich baseline for measuring California’s progress in the coming years.
In 2012-2013, truancy rates increased in some districts and decreased in others compared to the previous year. Yet, these numbers should be interpreted with caution. Increases in the truancy rate in some districts may be an indication that districts are keeping better attendance records, rather than evidence of an increase in the number of truant students. In this year’s district survey, 23% of districts stated that they began to review attendance data more frequently in the 2013-2014 school year, and another 30% of districts said they plan to start conducting more frequent reviews in the 2014-2015 school year. Better tracking of student absences is a critical sign of progress in California’s efforts to better understand and detect attendance problems early on.
The Cost of Absenteeism to California School Districts
Truancy and chronic absence come at an enormous cost to many California school districts. Funding for school districts is based on average daily attendance (ADA). As a result, school districts with high rates of absenteeism can lose millions of dollars in much-needed state funding each year.
County-by-county estimates of lost ADA funding and elementary school truancy rates are below.
In School + On Track 2013 reported that California schools lost $1.4 billion in ADA funding in the 2010-2011 school year due to student absences. This year, we calculated lost funding for both the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. Overall, California school districts have lost over $3.5 billion over the course of three years.2 Data from this three-year baseline indicates that California school districts lost approximately $1.11 billion in funding for their schools in 2011-2012, and approximately $1.06 billion in 2012-2013. These losses in funding are particularly painful for school districts that already face enormous budget challenges, and create a financial imperative for school districts to take action to improve school attendance.
In our 2014 survey of school district leaders, we asked districts to report how much funding they lose each year due to absenteeism. Over 40% of respondents reported that they lost $100,000 or more in funding in the 2013-2014 school year due to truancy and school absences.3 Almost 20% of respondents reported that they lost more than half a million dollars in ADA funding. Overall, the 59 districts that were able to specify their losses due to absenteeism lost a combined $31,234,716 in ADA funds.
Elementary School Truancy Rates
In California, a student is truant if he/she is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on 3 occasions in a school year. Therefore, a child’s first truancy offense is an important early warning indicator of an attendance problem. Flagging missed learning time after three unexcused tardies and/or absences allows for immediate interventions that can prevent future absences.
This year we can report that California’s elementary school truancy crisis was not an isolated circumstance in 2011-2012. Instead, additional years of baseline data indicate that the attendance crisis has been persistent in California. There is an urgent need for structural reform.
Almost 30% of public school students were truant in the 2012-2013 school year, which mirror truancy rates from 2011-2012. Also, for the second year in a row, nearly 40% of these 1.9 million truant students were in elementary school. In sum, 1 in 5 elementary school students were truant in California in the 2012-2013 school year. The elementary truancy rate for the state overall increased by 1.2% from the previous year. These figures do not account for any changes districts have made since the 2013 report was released because California takes an entire year to release its official truancy rates. However, estimates of the elementary school truancy rate based on a study in partnership with Aeries Student Information System4 suggest that truancy rates remained high in 2013-2014. Data from a sample of 147,749 students from 32 California school districts indicates a truancy rate of 22.8% in 2013-2014, a slight increase from the previous year, for all elementary school students.
The elementary truancy rate for the state overall has increased by 1.2% since 2011-2012. This translates into 53,908 additional truant elementary school students in the 2012-2013 school year. Plainly put, attendance trends have remained stagnant despite efforts to improve outcomes.
The table below compares elementary school truancy rates from 2011-2012 with those from 2012-2013, and includes estimates of funding lost due to absenteeism in both years.
Elementary School Truancy Rates & Loss of Funding by County (2012 - 2013)
|County||2011-2012 Elementary School Truancy Rate||2012-2013 Elementary School Truancy Rate||Change from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013||2011-2012 Loss of Funding||2011-2012 Per pupil Losses||2012-2013 Loss of Funding||2012-2013 Per pupil Losses|
|San Luis Obispo||30.20%||27.45%||-2.75%||$6,712,957.00||$199.00||$4,902,641.60||$145.44|
There is considerable variation in truancy rates among elementary schools in California. Some schools report zero truant students, while others have rates that exceed 90% of the K-5 school population. Because California’s infrastructure for monitoring attendance is in need of upgrades, these rates may present an incomplete picture of truancy in each district. Nevertheless, even based on current records, over 2,000 elementary schools, or 37% of elementary schools in the state, have a truancy rate between 20% and 40%. Approximately 1 in 10 California elementary schools has a truancy rate that exceeds 40%.
Elementary School Chronic Absence Rates
A student who is absent for any reason for at least 10% of the school year is chronically absent. Therefore, in a 180-day school year, a chronically absent student will miss 18 days of school or more.
Chronic absence is a benchmark that can indicate when a child’s attendance habits switch from being potentially harmful to potentially irreparable. Even the brightest students will struggle when they miss large amounts of learning time.
For example, chronic absence in first grade is associated with lower sixth grade test scores, higher rates of suspension, and a “substantially higher probability of chronic absence in 6th grade.”5 In addition, each year a student is chronically absent, his or her chances of dropping out increase considerably.6 Moreover, students from low-income families who are chronically absent in kindergarten experience a disproportionately negative impact on their first grade academic achievement.7
New research confirms the tangible impact chronic absence has on elementary school students. A 2014 study of a nationally representative sample of students shows that chronic absence in kindergarten is associated with lower academic achievement and reduced student engagement.8 In a California study, only 17% of students studied who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were reading proficiently in third grade, compared to 64% for students with good attendance.9 These results are alarming given the power of a student's third grade reading level as an indicator of their future academic success. Students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma.10
Missing and Incomplete Records in California Schools
National studies suggest 1 in 10 kindergarten and first grade children are chronically absent.11 Yet, currently in California, we have no way of knowing exactly how many students are chronically absent and which groups of students are most at-risk. Information on chronic absence is not collected in the state’s student record system and many school districts do not maintain chronic absence information in their district student information systems.
Therefore, there are large gaps in districts’ information on chronic absence. 1 in 10 districts reported in our survey that they do not know their chronic absence rate for the 2013-2014 school year. Additionally, 1 in 5 school districts were unable to track their chronic absence rates beyond the past two years. Many districts still need state support in order to effectively monitor attendance.
There are some positive, but nascent and incomplete, trends that indicate better collection of attendance records at the local level. Districts that reported not knowing their chronic absence rates have decreased from 20% for 2011-2012 to 11% for 2013-2014. Unknown chronic truancy rates have also decreased from 24% to 16% of school districts in the same time period. These trends are encouraging, but more must be done to assist districts.
A bill recently passed by the California Legislature, AB 186612 (Bocanegra), would enhance the California Department of Education’s student record system (CALPADS) to include fields on attendance, chronic absence and chronic truancy. This would allow school districts to not only identify baseline chronic absence rates, but also to track these rates longitudinally (year over year) and by subgroups identified under LCFF, such as low-income and foster students.
Chronic Absence Rates in District LCAPs
Under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), school districts are now required to address attendance and chronic absence in their Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs). Yet because of outdated local and state records systems, many districts do not have chronic absence rates to report and to use as a baseline for their attendance improvement goals. As a result, the majority of district LCAPs contain little to no information on attendance rates, or goals related to attendance and chronic absence for these student subgroups.
Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP)
Every school district, charter school, and county office of education must adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which must specify annual goals and action plans that address all eight state priorities.
One of the state’s 8 priorities is “pupil engagement,” which is to be measured by school attendance rates, chronic absenteeism rates, middle school and high school dropout rates, and high school graduation rates.
LCAPs must address all 8 state priorities for the entire student body, as well as for numerically significant pupil subgroups, which include racial/ethnic groups, low-income pupils, English Learners, pupils with disabilities, and foster youth.
According to our office’s review of 140 randomly selected LCAPs (representing over 10% of districts in the state), only 15.7% of school districts provided baseline chronic absences rates. Another review of 80 LCAPs by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Children Now, and Attendance Works yielded similar findings. Only 14 out of 80, or 18%, of LCAPs they reviewed reported baseline chronic absence rates in their LCAPs.13 Only one district LCAP – Sacramento City Unified – reported its chronic absence rate for elementary schools separately.14
Districts need modern state infrastructure to assist them in fulfilling their LCFF obligations.
For those districts leading the way by providing chronic absence rates in their LCAPs, a stark picture emerges. Many school districts report 10% or higher chronic absence rates, and one southern California district reported a 27% chronic absence rate. In at least three large districts, more than 1 in 5 students are missing 18 days or more days of school each year.
Districts reporting chronic absence rates are taking positive steps toward improving attendance. LCAPs are designed to encourage transparency and promote informed decision making by counties and local governments. By identifying current chronic absence rates, district administrators, school leaders and stakeholders in the community can better understand the extent of student absences and set realistic goals to improve attendance. By contrast, parents and community members in districts that do not report this information are left largely in the dark about chronic absence in their schools. Publishing accurate, transparent chronic absence rates and goals to reduce those rates should be the rule, not the exception, in California.
The chart below lists the K-12 chronic absence rates and district goals for improvement from the 140 LCAPs reviewed.
School District Chronic Absence Rates (K-12) According to 2014 LCAPs
|School District||Current Chronic Absence Rate15||District Goal for Improving Chronic Absence Rate|
|ABC Unified||20%||Decrease rate by 3% annually|
|Albany City Unified||4.8%||Decrease rate by 10% annually|
|Antioch Unified||13.8%||Decrease rate by 5% annually|
|Berkeley Unified||12.5%||Decrease rate by 7% annually|
|Baldwin Park Unified||5%||Decrease rate by 2% annually|
|Centinela Valley Union High||17.5%||Decrease rate to less than 10% in next three years|
|Charter Oak Unified||6.3%||Decrease rate by 5% annually|
|Chico Unified||7.7%||Decrease rate to 7% in the next three years|
|Downey Unified||7%||Decrease rate by .5% annually|
|Long Beach Unified||27%||Decrease rate by 2% annually|
|Oakland Unified||10%||Decrease rate by .5% annually|
|Pajaro Valley Unified||9%||None specified|
|Pasadena Unified||2.7%||Decrease rate by 1% annually|
|Pomona Unified||5.93%||Decrease rate by 1% annually|
|Sacramento City Unified|| Elementary 11.8%
|Decrease rates to the following in next three years:
|San Diego Unified||8.1%||Decrease rate by 10% annually|
|San Jose Unified||11%||Decrease rate to 10.3% in the next three years|
|Scotts Valley Unified||2%||Keep below 2%|
|Tehachapi Unified||20%||Decrease rate to 14% in next three years|
|Visalia Unified||9%||Decrease rate generally|
|West Contra Costa Unified||17%||Decrease rate to 10% in next three years|
Estimated Chronic Absence Rates
Lacking comprehensive, statewide records on student attendance, we conducted two separate studies to estimate the number of California elementary students at risk of falling behind in school. These studies indicate wide variations in attendance challenges across the state and a need for a modern, integrated system to better serve students.
Districts that reported elementary school chronic absence rates in our survey16 reported rates ranging from as low as zero to as high as 41- 50% of their student population. Most districts reported that their chronic absence rates are between 1 to 6% of elementary school students in their district. Statewide, that amounts to a range of approximately 35,000 to almost 210,000 elementary school students who are chronically absent each year.
Yet, chronic absence rates may be even higher than those reported in our 2014 survey. A study using data from Aeries of 32 school districts and over 147,000 students reveals an estimated chronic absence rate of 8.1% for K-6 students. Using that estimate, there may be as many as 270,000 K-6 students who were chronically absent in California in 2013-2014.
Estimated Chronic Truancy Rates
Chronic truancy (18 or more unexcused absences) is an indication of a severe attendance problem. A 2009 study of students in Philadelphia indicates that unexcused absences have an even greater negative impact on elementary school students’ academic achievement than excused absences.17 Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that chronic truancy at the elementary level is linked to “serious delinquent behavior” at age 12 and under.18
Rates of chronic truancy reported by school districts ranged from zero to over 30%. Sixty-nine percent of school districts reported that between 0 to 4% of elementary school students in their district were chronically truant in 2013-14.
Our study of school districts using Aeries data estimates over 50,000 elementary students were chronically truant, or 2% of all students. In addition, chronic truancy rates were much higher for some subgroups, including African American students.19
Estimated Severe Chronic Absence Rates
Severe chronic absence is the most extreme measure of attendance problems we can estimate. It indicates students who have missed 20% or more of the school year – 36 days, or over a month and a half of school. Our study of Aeries data estimates over 40,000 elementary students were severely chronically absent last year.
Absences Greatest in Early Years
Grade-level estimates of truancy, chronic absence, chronic truancy and severe chronic absence reveal that students miss greater amounts of school when they are very young. Missing school during these critical developmental years20 can have a particularly negative impact on our students’ future academic achievement.21
3+ unexcused absences/tardies
Chronic Absence Rate
18+ missed days for any reason
Chronic Truancy Rate
18+ unexcused absences
Severe Chronic Absence Rate
36+ missed days for any reason
Efforts to Monitor Attendance Records
Some districts are taking concrete, tangible steps to enhance their ability to monitor student absences. Sixty-three school districts reported in our district survey that they have begun to analyze records on the number of students who are chronically absent in the 2013-2014 school year or plan to do so in 2014-2015. Fifty-nine districts stated that they are beginning to identify and reach out to chronically absent students.22
While these are promising first steps, they represent an incomplete patchwork of progress. School districts can improve attendance rates, but they will continue to face steep challenges without a modern state infrastructure in place to track attendance for each student.
- A more detailed overview of our research methodology is included in the appendix to this report.
- Appendix: Methodology.
- Our district survey was sent to all the superintendents of all California school districts. Figures are based on the 74 district leaders who responded to this question.
- Hedy Chang & Cecelia Leong, Early Intervention Matters: How Addressing Chronic Absence Can Reduce Dropout Rates, ATTENDANCE WORKS 13 (May 24, 2013), http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Early-Intervention-NDPC-SD-webinar-FINAL-5-24-13.pdf.
- Id. at 15
- Robert Balfanz & Vaughan Byrnes, Chronic Absenteeism: Summarizing What We Know From Nationally Available Data 23 (2012).
- Michael A. Gottfried, Chronic Absenteeism and Its Effects on Students’ Academic and Socioemotional Outcomes, JOURNAL OF EDUCATION FOR STUDENTS PLACED AT RISK (in press).
- Attendance in the Early Grades: Why it Matters for Reading, ATTENDANCE WORKS 1 (February 2014), http://tinyurl.com/mv96d5k.
- Donald J. Hernandez, Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation 4 (2012), http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-DoubleJeopardy-2012-Full.pdf.
- What is Chronic Absence?, ATTENDANCE WORKS 1, http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/What-is-Chronic-Absence.pdf.
- Pupil attendance: California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, AB 1866, (2014), http://tinyurl.com/k6ywa6v.
- Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Children Now, and Attendance Works reviewed 80 district LCAPs in summer 2014. The analysis included LCAPs from the 25 largest districts as well as randomly selected LCAPs from each county, where available. Most Districts Fail to Adequately Address Chronic Absence in their LCAPs, FIGHT CRIME: INVEST IN KIDS, ATTENDANCE WORKS, AND CHILDREN NOW (August 2014), http://www.childrennow.org/uploads/documents/CA_LCAP_Analysis.pdf.
- Sacramento City Unified School District LCAP (June 19, 2014).
- Districts are required to set goals for each of the eight state priorities. Nearly every district in this table has complied with this requirement by identifying specific goals for reducing chronic absence in their LCAPs.
- Information on the survey methodology is located in the Appendix to the report.
- Michael A. Gottfried, Excused versus Unexcused: How Student Absences in Elementary School Affect Academic Achievement, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 31, No. 4, 392-415 (Dec., 2009).
- Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School, JUVENILE JUSTICE BULLETIN (September 2001), https://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/jjbul2001_9_1/page1.html.
- Chapter 2: Fulfilling the Promise of LCFF for California’s At-Risk Student Populations.
- Only 17% of chronically absent kindergartners and first graders in California read proficiently by 3rd grade. Students who don't read proficiently by 3rd grade are 4 times more likely to drop out of school.
- Attendance in the Early Grades: Why it Matters for Reading, ATTENDANCE WORKS 1 (February 2014), http://tinyurl.com/mv96d5k.
- Districts were able to select multiple responses to this question. Therefore, some of the same districts that report that they have begun to analyze records on the number of students who are chronically absent may also have reported that they are beginning to identify and reach out to chronically absent students.