A study released Wednesday looking at Madison middle school attendance and absenteeism suggests perfect attendance would have a “very modest” benefit to closing academic achievement gaps.
The study, conducted by the Madison Education Partnership, looked at rates of attendance and any associated effects for Madison students in grades 6 through 8, finding that unexcused absences are likely to be signs of personal challenges a student is facing rather than a cause of poor academic performance.
It largely aligns with a finding of a similar study on elementary Madison students finished last year by the Madison Education Partnership — a collaborative research effort involving the Madison School District and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research within the UW-Madison School of Education.
“That was a little bit of a surprise,” said Katie Eklund, lead researcher on the report. “There was some belief attendance problems had higher correlation with academic achievement as you move into middle school or high school.”
Eklund said that while unexcused absences have a negative effect on academic outcomes, other factors such as demographics, prior student achievement and time spent out of school for an illness also factor into the gap.
Andrew Statz, the district’s head of data and accountability, said the study shows absences do have a bearing on academic outcomes, but “it’s probably not as strong of a relationship as most people would think.”
“There’s a conventional wisdom that attendance really matters, and I’m sure that it does,” Statz said. “But once you look at student characteristics, health and prior achievement, the effect of absenteeism is actually quite small.”
The report also found an increase in the number of middle school students who were absent from school without a reason over the six-year period studied.
In grades 6 to 8, 59% of Madison students had at least one unexcused absence in the 2012-13 school year. That figure increased to 72% for the 2017-18 school year.
Eklund, a UW-Madison assistant professor of educational psychology, said researchers talked with middle school staff to try to get a sense of why more students are missing school, but no conclusion was reached. She said more qualitative information from students could help answer the question.
Statz said one of the important recommendations from the study is “investigating the why” to increasing unexcused absences, especially in how they could relate to school climate.
“It’s not exactly clear why we see that increase. We just know that it is happening,” she said. “That is part of the reason for diving deeper into why kids are missing school.”
Controlling other factors
To determine the impact attendance has on the academic achievement of middle school students, researchers used a model of perfect attendance that takes into account demographics, prior academic outcomes and student health conditions.
The model was used to predict what the gap would be on GPA, reading and math outcomes for students of different races and economic levels compared with the overall student body performance if the attendance rate was the same for all students.
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The largest change predicted would be a 0.17-point gain in GPA for black middle school students, representing a 24% reduction in the gap between African American students and the overall middle school student body. Gaps in reading and math performance were predicted to shrink by roughly 5% under perfect attendance for most groups.
The rate of unexcused absences also varies widely among racial, ethnic and economic lines, the study said.
Out of students who had any unexcused absences recorded, the median number of unexcused absences for white middle school students resulted in 0.4 days missed compared to a median of 3.5 days missed through unexcused absences for black students in grades 6 through 8.
Excused absence rates remained relatively similar across demographic groups.
Even though there are disparities in unexcused absences between student groups, the study said “most of the association between race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and student learning is accounted for by factors other than absenteeism, such as health disparities and prior academic achievement.”
Eklund said part of the findings that stood out to her is students who had moderate to high rates of unexcused absences in fifth grade either stay consistent in their absenteeism or get worse through middle school.
“The message that sends to me is middle school is a great time to intervene and get on top of attendance concerns, because we know that if we don’t, that trajectory just continues or gets worse,” she said.
This year, the Madison School District is undertaking a campaign, called “Be Here to Get There,” to encourage better attendance, including informing parents how to check on their child’s attendance through the student information system and encouraging parents to receive notifications to their phones if the student is tardy or absent.
Student feelings of belonging, safety and respect within their middle schools also correlated to attendance, Eklund said, whereas students who felt more connected to a school showed better attendance.
As part of an annual climate survey, students responded to how likely they are to agree or disagree with statements such as, “I feel like I belong in this school,” “I feel safe at this school,” and “The adults at my school respect the students.”
For middle school students who reported they strongly disagreed with the statements, there was a significantly higher rate of unexcused absences.
For example, middle school students who strongly felt they didn’t belong had a median unexcused absence rate of close to two days compared with 0.25 days for students who had a strong feeling of belonging.
Even though the study does not show a strong effect of attendance on academic outcomes, Tremayne Clardy, the district’s chief of middle schools, said it’s still important to push for higher attendance if it could lead to a stronger sense of belonging, especially among students of color.
“Certainly, examining aspects of school climate and engaging in future research on climate to look at that relationship a little bit more would be helpful,” Eklund said.