Data on unexcused absences can be used to craft a “more preventive, problem-solving, and equitable response to poor attendance,” according to a new Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) report, Disparities in Unexcused Absences Across California Schools.
Attending school is critical to young people’s development, especially in the wake of pandemic disruptions. “Students not only gain from curriculum and instruction but also benefit from connecting with peers and adults as well as accessing critical resources available on school campuses,” the report states.
Published in March, the report considers data from the 2017–18, 2018–19 and 2021–22 academic years and found that 38 percent of absences were labeled unexcused during each of the time periods examined — remaining consistent pre- and post-pandemic. High schoolers were more likely to have unexcused absences than their younger counterparts. Additionally, schools that had a higher percentage of unexcused absences often had lower rates of attendance while those with lower rates of unexcused absences had higher attendance.
The analysis of statewide data also found that students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged were more likely to have absences identified as unexcused. “This is also true for Black, Native American, Latinx and Pacific Islander students relative to white, Asian American and Filipino students,” the report states. “Black students experience the largest disparity. These disparities cannot be fully explained by poverty since they remained across differences in socioeconomic status.”
While students with disabilities and English learners were more likely to be chronically absent, the disparities in unexcused absences among these students were minimal in comparison to disparities across socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Schools that serve a higher number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students use more punitive approaches to deal with the issue, preliminary data suggests, but “more research is needed to understand why,” according to the report. Punitive responses aren’t likely to help a student’s attendance if absences are happening for reasons out of their control and the overuse of the unexcused absence label may impair attempts to work with students and families to better attendance.
Whether excused or unexcused, missing class negatively impacts students’ educational advancement. Unexcused absences can lead to consequences such as losing credit for missed work and being excluded from extracurriculars, and can potentially result in students and families being taken to court and fined.
Investing in prevention and early intervention is critical, according to the report. “When students become involved with the legal system for truancy, they can easily become stigmatized and less likely to receive needed support from schools,” it states.
Further, greater use of the unexcused absence label does not result in less chronic absenteeism, the report found. In 2021–22, on average, schools that labeled absences unexcused more sparingly had lower rates of absenteeism at 13.7 school days missed on average compared to 16.8 days at schools that used the label more frequently. Rates of chronic absenteeism were also lower at schools that use the unexcused absence label less often at 27.7 percent compared to 37.5 percent at schools that use it more regularly. “This finding helps to allay concerns that adopting practices to reduce the use of the unexcused-absence label would cause absenteeism to spike among students,” the report states.
Researchers also found some bright spots where schools had high attendance, labeled absences as unexcused less regularly and observed fewer disparities in labeling absences.
School districts in California are required by law to monitor key indicators such as chronic absenteeism and address educational disparities as part of their Local Control and Accountability Plans.
Districts can reveal challenges they face in engaging, educating and supporting students by using data to determine what disparities exist and then attempt to address them to provide a more equitable experience for all students.
“The good news is that schools and districts are uniquely well positioned to change disparities in the coding of absences. Unlike many other disparities, the locus of control for deciding whether an absence is excused versus unexcused lies within the control of school leadership, who by law have discretion over how absences are coded,” the report explains.
State law allows for excused absences for situations including illness, quarantine, funeral services for an immediate family member, medical appointments and spending time with a family member on leave from active military service, but it has been amended to add new valid reasons for an absence. In 2021, for example, it was expanded to include absence due to mental or behavioral health needs and for cultural ceremonies and events. However, even in these cases, proper documentation from a parent is typically needed to ensure an absence is labeled excused instead of unexcused.
Additionally, as of 2013, school administrators were granted discretion to excuse absences for reasons that aren’t covered by state law based on their assessment of a student’s circumstances.
Data on excused and unexcused absenteeism rates by student population, grade and school is available on the California Department of Education’s DataQuest portal.
“Educators can use these data to identify where disparities in unexcused absences exist in their schools or districts and then work with students, families, and community partners to identify and address the root causes of these disparities,” the report states.
Recommendations outlined in the report include:
- Using data to learn about disparities and bright spots.
- Investing in practices and data systems to monitor and understand the reasons behind excused and unexcused absences.
- Reviewing and updating local and state policies on unexcused absences.
- Assessing and improving the way attendance practices and policies are communicated to students and their families.
- Investing in professional development around improving attendance and truancy practices.