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A simple way to help poor kids succeed: make sure they actually go to school

Empty desks on the National Mall.
Empty desks on the National Mall.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Here's a deceptively simple way to close part of the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students: make sure that poor students are in school as much as their richer peers.

A recent study found that absentee rates could explain up to 25 percent of difference in math scores between low-income students and less disadvantaged ones. Getting kids to come to school seems like an obvious way to help them score better on tests and eventually graduate. But it's often overlooked in favor of more complicated, more controversial, and more interesting interventions. Here's why attendance is incredibly important, and why it's a tough problem to solve.

A surprisingly high proportion of students in some areas miss a lot of school

students in classroom

Being in the classroom is really important. (Shutterstock)

Going to school is required by law, and studies tend to assume that schools are following through. Schools aren't required to report how many students are chronically absent, so very little national data exists on how often students miss school. Even the definition "chronically absent" varies, although the generally accepted definition is around 20 days of school per year.

Studies based on samples of students in several states suggest that as many as 15 percent of students might be chronically missing school, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University. In Oregon, almost one-quarter of students missed at least 18 days of school in one school year. Two studies — one in Baltimore, one in Florida — found that between first grade and middle school, almost half of students missed at least a month of school in one year.

Those missed days add up. The 20 percent of students with the worst attendance records in Florida missed the equivalent of an entire year of school between first grade and eighth grade. The situation in Baltimore was even worse: 40 percent of students missed the equivalent of an entire year during their elementary school years.

The one predictor of poor attendance: poverty

food bank lunch packing

A volunteer packs food to be sent home with students who get free and reduced lunch. (Modesto Bee)

Students from low-income families are more likely to be absent than students who are not. In Maryland, the Johns Hopkins study found, students eligible for free or reduced price school lunch missed school at double the rate of their wealthier peers. In Georgia, 70 percent of chronically absent students are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Missing school means they fall even farther behind. Children who are chronically absent in preschool and kindergarten are more likely to be held back in the third grade. As early as sixth grade, whether a child is going to school is a good indicator for whether she'll ever graduate high school.

K-12 attendance can even predict college graduation rates: Johns Hopkins cites a study in Rhode Island found students who were chronically absent in high school, but still managed to graduate and enroll in college, were more likely to drop out during their freshman year than students with regular attendance records.

It's not just a correlation between going to school and academic achievement

Student working with mentor

Assigning students mentors helped them boost their attendance rates in New York. (Shutterstock)

The easy assumption is that students who are more likely to miss class have a host of other problems — such as parents who don't or can't get them to class. But studies in New York and Chicago have found that just improving attendance can increase test scores and make students more likely to graduate.

The question is how to do it. One reason students miss school in the first years of elementary school is that they're sick. Students in the US missed 14 million days of school in 2008 due to asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And low-income students are more likely to miss school due to asthma than wealthier ones. That suggests that better controlling children's asthma could help them in school.

Attendance Works, a national organization focused on encouraging school attendance, encourages schools to better track student absences and to talk to students about why they're missing so much school. Some students don't come to school because they don't feel safe there; others don't have transportation or a stable home life. In New York, getting more students to school required cooperation from several city agencies, including the police, the city's health department, and the city's Department of Homeless Services.

But New York's effort worked. Nobody knew if students who missed a lot of school would actually see academic improvements when they started going more regularly. In 2009, the city hired mentors to work with students who had been chronically absent. Students who had been absent frequently but started coming to school more regularly were just as likely to be enrolled in school as students who had never been absent much in the first place. And their test scores climbed slightly too.

This is hopeful news. Even if students were missing lots of school, they weren't lost forever — schools just have to figure out how to get them back in the doors.

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