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Using ESSA to Tackle Chronic Absence from Pre-K to K-12


The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) is proud to partner with New America on this blog series highlighting early learning opportunities and challenges under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

by  Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, Executive Director, Jane Sundius, Senior Fellow  Louise Wiener, Senior Fellow, Attendance Works.  

As states work to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), one of the most positive developments is the frequency with which they are adopting chronic absence as the indicator of school quality or student success. For those not immersed in ESSA details, the requirement to measure school quality is one of the ways ESSA improves on the No Child Left Behind Act. Chronic Absence: Our Top Pick for the ESSA School Quality Indicator describes how chronic absence is an excellent fit with these requirements.

From our perspective, the inclusion of chronic absence also provides a golden opportunity to create strong, appropriate, and effective links between pre-K and K-12 education.  By adopting chronic absence data as a key diagnostic measure, pre-K teachers can enhance their efforts to ready young children for kindergarten.

What Is Chronic Absence and How Much Does it Matter?

Children are chronically absent when they miss 10 percent or more of school in a year. There is robust evidence that chronic absence puts children at risk of school failure. Unfortunately, it’s a widespread problem. Nationally, more than 6.8 million students and at least 10 percent of kindergarteners and first graders are chronically absent. A growing number of studies suggest chronic absence is even higher in pre-K.

Experience, common sense, and research on pre-K attendance suggest that attendance habits are developed early. Thus, while poor attendance is detrimental to students of all ages, it is particularly harmful for young children, because it can set the stage for poor attendance later on. Even more worrisome is the fact that early chronic absence is more common among those children who most need the social, emotional, and academic supports that schools provide. For low-income children, those with special needs, or those who experience other challenges at home, research shows frequent absences have an even greater negative impact on their success in school.

The Opportunity For Early Childhood Education

Inclusion of the school quality and student success indicator in ESSA represents a sea change in federal accountability requirements. Simply put, it signals recognition that test scores alone are not sufficient to assess or improve public education. The fact that pre-K chronic absence affects both K-12 attendance and school performance and that many states are choosing chronic absence as the school quality indicator opens the door to an education reform strategy that plays to the strengths of early childhood education.

First, states and districts can use rates of kindergarten chronic absence to identify if they need to expand investments in high-quality pre-K programming in particular schools, neighborhoods, or for certain student populations. Studies show going to pre-K can reduce chronic absence in subsequent years.

Second, pre-K programs could also start to collect and monitor data on chronic absence to use as an early warning sign indicating they need to take extra steps to help students and families transition successfully into regular schooling. Using data on children’s attendance, pre-K and kindergarten educators can work with family members and community partners to remove attendance barriers and build good attendance habits. Especially among our youngest students, absences are more likely to be excused. High levels are often related to health factors: asthma and dental problems, learning disabilities, and behavioral health issues occurring among children or their family members.  With the appropriate supports, these absences can be reduced before children begin to fall behind academically.

Programs can also play a significant role in helping families understand the importance of paying attention to too many absences among our youngest students. Families can be enlisted as partners in improving attendance and encouraged to speak with their child’s teacher if their child shows signs of anxiety (e.g. a stomach ache) and a reluctance to go to pre-K.

Some states have begun to leverage the opportunity to use ESSA to adopt a more integrated PreK-12 approach. Connecticut is exploring how it can monitor pre-K chronic absence. ESSA creates an opportunity for the state to use such data to inform strategies for successful kindergarten transitions. Tennessee is using ESSA as an opportunity to create a PreK-12 data system and to strengthen investments in early learning. In short, both states are positioned to leverage ESSA to equip schools and early childhood programs to work together to monitor and address early patterns of absence.

To strengthen K-12 outcomes, there are several actions states can take to invest in chronic absence prevention by monitoring attendance and addressing contributing factors of chronic absence from pre-K forward. States can collect and use kindergarten chronic absence data to identify the need to expand access to high quality pre-K programming. States can begin monitoring chronic absence in pre-K programs and use it to identify students and families in need of additional support and outreach. States can also integrate information about the importance of daily attendance into materials aimed at engaging and supporting families in pre-K and kindergarten. Finally, states can vertically integrate pre-K to first grade professional development to address chronic absence and establish a dialogue focused on the transition between pre-K and kindergarten.

Resources

The Attendance Works website contains free materials to help states, districts and programs reduce chronic absence by promoting family engagement and professional development. Early and Often, our early education toolkit, provides resources for interactive professional development and family engagement.

The website also contains:

  • The District Attendance and School Attendance Tracking Tool, both of which include pre-K.
  • A Pre-K Attendance Tracking Tool for free-standing programs that generates data comparable to the District and School Attendance Tracking Tools.
  • Attendance Works has cooperated with the major Head Start data providers so that comparable data reports can be generated directly from COPA and ChildPlus – about 80 percent of Head Start agencies.