Student absenteeism still high in Arkansas, federal report says

Nearly one in four Arkansas' 258 public school districts -- 24% -- experienced "extreme chronic absenteeism" in the 2021-22 school year, meaning that 30% or more of students in a district missed 10% of the school year for any reason.

In a typical 178-day Arkansas school year, chronic absenteeism amounts to almost 18 days of missed school by a student for either excused or unexcused absences.

Among the districts with extreme chronic absenteeism in 2021-22 were Little Rock, where 44.2% of students were chronically absent; North Little Rock, with 42.8%; Fayetteville, with 30.7%; Junction City, with 53.8%; Pine Bluff, with 40.2%; Jonesboro, with 36.3%; and Marion, with 42.5%.

That's all according to a report released Wednesday by the national nonprofit Attendance Works organization and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

In addition to the 24% of school systems with extreme chronic absenteeism, another 68% of Arkansas' districts reported "significant" or "high" student absenteeism. Between 10% and 29% of students in those districts -- Conway, Bentonville, Pulaski County Special and Springdale among them -- missed 18 or more of their school days in 2021-22, which is the latest year for which data was available to researchers from the U.S. Department of Education.

There were a handful of Arkansas districts -- 8% -- that had "modest" or "low" chronic absenteeism, meaning that fewer than 10% of the student body missed 10% of their classroom instruction days in 2021-22. The Hampton School District, for example, had no chronically absent students. Others, including the nearby Hermitage School District, had a 2.8% chronic absentee rate. Nashville School District, as another example, had a 6.8% chronic absentee rate. Booneville School District had a 5.6% rate.

The national study, Turning Back the Tide: The Critical Role of States in Reducing Chronic Absenteeism, concludes that every state -- including Arkansas -- saw chronic absenteeism rates higher in 2021-22 than in the pre-covid-19 pandemic year of 2017-18. In that earlier year, 17% of Arkansas districts had modest or low chronic absentee rates. On the other end of the spectrum, only 6% of schools reported "extreme" numbers of absent students compared to 24% four years later.

A total of 14.7 million students in the United States were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year for reasons such as illness, hunger and lack of transportation, as well as truancy. Not only are those frequently absent students at risk of academic failure, the study said, but the educational experience of their classmates in a school with high absenteeism is also affected.

"Today's dramatically high levels of absenteeism are a call to states and all education stakeholders to focus intently on advancing and sustaining district action to improve attendance that is grounded in an understanding of the root causes of chronic absence," said Hedy Chang, the executive director of the national Attendance Works organization.

Chang said she was pleased to see that newer 2022-23 data -- acquired from 37 states, not including Arkansas -- show that chronic absenteeism appears to be decreasing somewhat.

"But the exceptionally high chronic absence levels we see in most schools make it clear that improving student engagement and attendance to pre-pandemic levels requires a sustained effort over time," Chang said.

In Arkansas, where student absenteeism has continued to top pre-pandemic levels, academic achievement is also depressed.

Student results on the Arkansas-required ACT Aspire exams -- given in the spring of 2022 in literacy, math and science -- fell short of 2019 pre-covid-pandemic results in nearly all grades and subjects. Those 2022 results, however, showed some gains over the 2021 results, prompting state education leaders to surmise that student achievement was on the rebound.

However, student results from the most recent ACT Aspire exams in 2023 showed little to no rebound when compared with the 2019 results.

Frederick Fields, executive director of student services in the Little Rock School District, said Wednesday that student attendance has been a priority. He referred to the district's Feet to the Seat campaign as an example of the effort.

That campaign that dates back to before the pandemic has been paired with other strategies, Fields said, including "one-on-one heart-to-heart discussions with students and their parents ... home visits, reward programs and an increased awareness of mental health issues."

"Focusing on chronic absenteeism is not easy, because it is sometimes difficult to get to the root cause, which is a mandate if we are to be successful in recovering learning loss during the pandemic," Fields said in an email response to questions.

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education declined to talk about the Arkansas data.

"We have not seen the study and would need time to review prior to providing a comment," Kimberly Mundell, director of communications for the state agency, said when asked about the report.

Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, urged states and state education agencies to assist school districts with building student attendance.

"Today's elevated levels of chronic absence can easily overwhelm a district's capacity to respond," he said in this week's report.

"Although attendance is typically considered a matter for local education agencies, the unprecedented levels and intensity of post-pandemic chronic absenteeism compels action from state education agencies and policymakers," the national report says.

"State actions and resources can be used to build awareness of what chronic absence is and how to reduce it. They can advance and sustain district and local action designed to improve attendance and engagement," the report continued.

Attendance Works and Everyone Graduates recommended that states take the following kinds of actions to promote student attendance:

* Publish comparable, timely and accurate data.

* Promote the importance of school attendance for student success and well-being.

* Build capacity to address chronic absence.

* Weave strategies to reduce absences into existing initiatives such as intensive tutoring and parent engagement incentives.

* Limit ineffective punitive actions for absenteeism that alienate families and don't address underlying causes of absences.

* Develop an action plan based on current data and existing resources.

An interactive map of Arkansas school districts with their 2021-22 school year chronic absentee rates may be found at arkansasonline.com/21absentee/.

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