I’ve been feeling somewhat like an adventurer on an epic quest in search of the answer to a question that, in my mind, should be fairly simple:

What is chronic absenteeism?

As part of the new accountability standards, I assumed that a functioning definition for the term MUST exist somewhere in the vast catalogues of information we now access on the Internet. After all, it was defined and utilized within the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and as part of the Office of Education Accountability (OEA) report. Yet, the more I asked, the more the answer changed.

Surely, the definition must be somewhere.


As part of my journey, slaying the dragons of red tape and being the new “guy”, I was informed – much to this researcher’s chagrin – that a singular definition of chronic absenteeism does not exist. Though the many permutations of the discussion are similar, there are nuances. On my quest, I came across the following similar (yet different) definitions:

Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year — approximately 18 days a year, or just two days every month. (Obrien, 2013)

Students who are chronically absent—meaning they miss at least 15 days of school in a year—are at serious risk of falling behind in school. (U.S. Department of Education)

Chronic absenteeism measures attendance in a different way, combining excused, unexcused and disciplinary absences to get a complete picture of how much instructional time students are missing. (Jordan, Miller, 2017)

The criteria for chronic absenteeism varies, but generally students who miss 10 or more days of school or 10% or greater of the school year are considered chronically absent. (Carter, 2018)

Chronic absenteeism—or missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason—is a proven early warning sign of academic risk and school dropout. (Bruner, Discher, Chang, 2011)

And of course, I asked Merriam-Webster:

1: prolonged absence of an owner from his or her property 2: chronic absence (as from work or school); also: the rate of such absence.

Etcetera, etcetera.

Casting the irritation, bitterness, and woe-some tales aside, it truly is a difficult task isolating a single, universal definition for chronic absenteeism, particularly in terms of statistical analyses. With the wide range of metrics used across the country and abroad, the varying understandings and expectations of what a “complete” education looks like, and the qualifications for a fulfilling classroom experience differing from teacher to teacher, being chronically absent is relative.

In Kentucky, considerations must be made for the difference among in-class instruction across districts. As the state begins to grapple with what it means to be chronically absent and the significance to learning time and academic success, we must make distinctions between absenteeism and truancy, which is currently defined as accruing three unexcused absences in Kentucky.

Why does chronic absenteeism matter?

ESSA outlines how Kentucky should seek to define chronic absenteeism. From the perspective of the bill:

States should define the metric as a percentage of a school year that students miss, rather than a set number of days that students are not in schools. This allows states and districts to make comparisons regardless of the length of jurisdictions’ school years… With proper tracking, schools can alert families when a student has missed 10 percent of the first two months or the first semester, and try to change that trajectory. (Jordan, Miller, 2017)

This is part and parcel of why addressing chronic absenteeism is so important. Attendance is key to bridging the thirty-million-word gap separating low-income children from their more affluent peers, staying on track to graduate, and emerging from school college and career ready. Understanding where and why students are chronically absent is just the beginning of the work. By identifying the causes behind chronic absence, school districts, parents, teachers, and students alike can begin to identify the sources of the problem. Attendance Works breaks out the causes of chronic absence into four categories: myths, barriers, aversion, disengagement.

In a given environment, any of these issues can contribute to why students aren’t attending. However, the presence of these myths and barriers and the genuine aversion and disengagement within and around educative environments can be mitigated and, once dealt with, increase the academic success across the state.

As revealed in recent news, truancy is a major issue across the Commonwealth. How much more this is found to be the case for chronic absenteeism has been delineated by the Legislative Research Commission and other groups in the state. Any of these articles, reports, and studies can more clearly explain what chronic absenteeism looks like in the state. Below, to address the issue, Attendance Works suggests the following interventions:

These are simple interventions with long-term implications for how well students perform academically. When done well, we will all see a better academic future for Kentucky’s students and a well-prepared cadre of emergent professionals and academicians across the state.

Having slain the dragon, this adventurer takes a pause on this epic quest and relishes a well-earned victory.

On to the next kingdom.

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