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Ask a REL Response

The effects of chronic absenteeism on early literacy — March 2017


Could you provide research on the effects of chronic absence on early literacy (proficiency in grades K–3)?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on the effects of absenteeism on early literacy proficiency for students in kindergarten through grade three. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive. Other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Canto, A. I., & Proctor, B. E. (2013, Fall). Beyond ORF: Student-level predictors of reading achievement. Journal of Research in Education, 23(2), 17–34. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study explored student-level predictors of reading achievement among third grade regular education students. Predictors included student demographics (sex and socioeconomic status (SES), using free and reduced lunch as proxy for SES), direct observations of reading skills (oral reading fluency (ORF) and word decoding skill (nonsense word fluency/NWF), and academic history (number of prior grade retentions (retentions), Reading/Language Arts grades (reading grade), and attendance rate. Hierarchical linear regression results indicated that ORF and reading grade were statistically significant predictors of high-stakes reading achievement for this sample (model R[superscript 2] = 0.631). Results replicated previous findings of the predictive value of ORF, above and beyond economic disadvantage and highlighted the influence of low reading grades as an additional key predictor of poor reading achievement, with effect above and beyond that of ORF alone. [NOTE: The volume number (2) shown on the attached PDF is incorrect. The correct citation information for this document is v23 n2 Fall 2013.]”

Chang, H., & Romero, M. (2008). Present, engaged and accounted for: The critical importance of addressing chronic absence in the early grades. New York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This report seeks to raise awareness of the critical importance of chronic early absence, synthesize available data on the scope of the challenge, and share emerging insights about how schools and communities can use chronic early absence to identify and address challenges affecting the social, educational and physical well-being of children and their families before problems become intractable. While parents are responsible for getting their children to school every day, schools and communities need to recognize and address the barriers and challenges that may inhibit them from doing so, especially when they are living in poverty. Large numbers of chronically absent students could indicate systemic problems that affect the quality of the educational experience and/or the healthy functioning of the entire community. Activities included secondary analyses of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K) conducted by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), analysis of local data on student attendance patterns, a review of relevant literature, and information offered by practitioners, researchers, and funders about promising practices and programs.”

Ehrlich, S. B., Gwynne, J., Allensworth, E. M., & Fatani, S. (2016). Preschool attendance: How researchers and practitioners are working together to understand and address absenteeism among our youngest students. Washington, DC: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Consistent school attendance is a key foundation of student learning. While missing one or two school days each year is not likely to have serious consequences, chronic absenteeism (missing 10% or more of enrolled school days) can seriously undermine the learning process (Allensworth & Easton, 2007). Given national efforts to increase the enrollment of at-risk children into high quality early education programs, understanding whether enrollment alone is sufficient for preparing students for kindergarten or whether regular attendance also matters is an important issue with direct policy implications. This research study focused on 4-year-old children served by school-based preschool programs in a large, urban district between 2008–09 and 2011–12. The findings showed that chronic absenteeism was common among preschool students. The students who miss the most school are those who enter with the weakest skills and end up even further behind at the end of the year. Schools’ abilities to organize themselves in ways that support preschool attendance may be key to preventing later attendance and learning struggles. For example, a weekly e-blast to preschool teachers could provide reminders about the value of good preschool attendance and tips for how to keep an emphasis on good or improved attendance.”

Ehrlich, S. B., Gwynne, J., Stitziel Pareja, A., Allensworth, E. M., Moore, P., Jagesic, S., & Sorice, E. (2014). Preschool attendance in Chicago Public Schools: Relationships with learning outcomes and reasons for absences: Research Summary. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Significant attention is currently focused on ensuring that children are enrolled in preschool. However, regular attendance is also critically important. Children with better preschool attendance have higher kindergarten readiness scores, this is especially true for students entering with low skills. Unfortunately, many preschool-aged children are chronically absent. They often miss preschool for health reasons, but many families also face a range of logistical obstacles in getting their children to preschool every day. This report outlines some key findings from this study such as: (1) the extent of absenteeism among preschool students, (2) a comparison of absenteeism among students in kindergarten through third grade, and (3) examining the relationship between preschool absenteeism and learning outcomes, both during preschool and in second grade. The report also explores reasons why preschool students miss school. This report includes Appendices: (A) Data Sources, Description of Samples, and Analytic Methods, (B) Development of the Kindergarten Readiness Tool Rasch Subscales, (C) Relationship between Preschool Attendance and Growth on Woodcock-Johnson III, Endnotes and About the Authors.”

Gottfried, M. A. (2009). Evaluating the relationship between student attendance and achievement in urban elementary and middle schools: An instrumental variables approach. Washington, DC: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This paper will address several gaps in the literature. First, those studies that have attempted to hone in on the relationship between student attendance and achievement in K–12 education have been conducted only at the aggregate level of analysis. Although these papers have provided insight into how attendance may be related to achievement, aggregate data have less variability than underlying individual-level data. As a result, it is not possible with aggregate data to offer findings on the relationship between student-level inputs and student-level achievement. Thus, this paper extends upon those previous studies, which employed only aggregate data, with new analyses at the student level. By using a large-scale, longitudinal database of all individual- and multi-level observations in all elementary and middle schools in the Philadelphia School District from academic years 1994/1995 to 2000/2001, this paper provides insight into how attendance affects student performance at a detailed level of analysis.”

London, R. A., Sanchez, M., & Castrechini, S. (2016). The dynamics of chronic absence and student achievement. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 24(112), 1–31. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Students with low attendance miss important learning and developmental opportunities and research has shown that they are at heightened risk of negative outcomes. Although there is an extensive body of research on truancy, chronic absenteeism is not generally measured or tracked in school data systems and is therefore not as well understood. This analysis uses linked, longitudinal administrative records to examine chronic absence across years for elementary and secondary school students. We investigate chronic absence patterns over time, ramifications of chronic absence on students’ educational outcomes, and effects of continued absence across school years. Results illustrate the cumulative nature of chronic absence and the negative role of persistent chronic absence on students’ educational outcomes. We discuss implications of these results for state policies and intervention procedures.”

Other Relevant Resources

Aucejo, E. M., & Romano, T. F. (2014). Assessing the effect of school days and absences on test score performance (CEP Discussion Paper No. 1302). London WC2A 2AE: Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “While instructional time is viewed as crucial to learning, little is known about the effectiveness of reducing absences relative to increasing the number of school days. In this regard, this paper jointly estimates the effect of absences and length of the school calendar on test score performance. Using administrative data from North Carolina public schools, we exploit a state policy that provides variation in the number of days prior to standardized testing and find substantial differences between these effects. Extending the school calendar by ten days increases math and reading test scores by only 0.8% and 0.2% of a standard deviation, respectively; a similar reduction in absences would lead to gains of 5.8% and 3% in math and reading. We perform a number of robustness checks including utilizing u data to instrument for absences, family-year fixed effects, separating excused and unexcused absences, and controlling for a contemporaneous measure of student disengagement. Our results are robust to these alternative specifications. In addition, our findings indicate considerable heterogeneity across student ability, suggesting that targeting absenteeism among low performing students could aid in narrowing current gaps in performance.”

Connolly, F., & Olson, L. S. (2012). Early elementary performance and attendance in Baltimore City schools’ pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Baltimore, MD: Baltimore Education Research Consortium. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study looks at attendance in the early grades of elementary school. In particular, the authors focus on students enrolled in Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) and Kindergarten (K). They follow these young students over several years to determine their pattern of chronic absence (CA), defined as missing more than one-ninth of days enrolled, and their later attendance and academic outcomes. One area of concern for Baltimore is the consistent underperformance of children who were in home care prior to enrolling in K. The authors were surprised to find that these students shared similar demographic characteristics with the Head Start students in our study. They discovered that these students may have met the economic qualifications for Head Start in that they qualified for ‘free’ meals in K. A concerted effort needs to be made to determine why they are not attending a pre-school program, and to ensure that all qualified children are enrolled in Head Start or City Schools Pre-K. As a result of their analyses the authors would like to recommend that: (1) MSDE report average daily attendance (ADA) and CA rates for students in Pre-K and K; (2) A concerted effort among relevant Baltimore City agencies should aim to maximize enrollment in Head Start and City Schools Pre-K programs; (3) City Schools work with Head Start to develop family education and outreach to emulate the high attendance rates seen among Head Start graduates; and (4) There be monitoring of student attendance as well as of school-wide attendance, examining both ADA and CA as important indicators.”

Fiester, L. (2013). Early warning confirmed: A research update on third-grade reading. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Today’s children are our nation’s hope for building a strong future economy and thriving society. One of the key milestones on the path to success is learning to read in the early grades. As documented in the Casey Foundation’s reports ‘Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters’ and ‘Early Warning Confirmed,’ the end of third grade marks the point when children transition from learning to read to using reading to learn other subjects. Children who read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school and to be economically successful in adulthood. This report provides an update on how fourth graders are faring in reading across the nation and in each state. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, 80 percent of low-income fourth graders and 66 percent of all fourth graders are not proficient in reading. Although improvements have been made in the past decade, reading proficiency remains unacceptably low in an economic environment that requires increasing levels of education and skills for family sustaining jobs. By 2020, the United States is expected to face a shortage of 1.5 million workers with college degrees but will have a surplus of 6 million individuals without a high school diploma who are unemployed because they lack necessary educational credentials. If we do not make sure all children gain the needed reading skills to be successful in school, their future educational and economic prospects will be dim, and our economy will lag.”

Gottfried, M. A. (2014). Chronic absenteeism and its effects on students’ academic and socioemotional outcomes. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 19(2), 53–75. Full text available for purchase at

From the abstract: “Recent policy dialogue suggests that chronic absenteeism is not only underdocumented, but is also detrimental to the success of students as early as kindergarten. That said, almost no empirical research has examined the effects of chronic absenteeism on student outcomes. This study addresses this underresearched issue in more depth. Using a nationally representative dataset of kindergarten students from the 2010–2011 school year, this study evaluates the effect of chronic absenteeism on both achievement and socioemotional outcomes. The findings suggest that chronic absenteeism reduces math and reading achievement outcomes, reduces educational engagement, and decreases social engagement. Hence, this study offers new evidence on how an undermeasured aspect of missing school impedes students’ attainment. Implications for policy and practice are discussed.”

Gottfried, M. A. (2011). The detrimental effects of missing school: Evidence from urban siblings. American Journal of Education, 117(2), 147–182. Full text available for purchase at

From the abstract: “There is evidence suggesting that missing school negatively relates to academic achievement. However, it is a difficult task to derive unbiased empirical estimates of absences in their influence on performance. One particular challenge arises from the unobserved heterogeneity in the family environment, which may relate to both absence behavior and school performance. This article provides the first analysis aimed at reducing the family-specific omitted variable bias pertaining to measures of absences in their influence on standardized testing achievement. It does so by employing a model of family fixed effects on a longitudinal sample of siblings within the same household in a large urban school district over six years of observations. The results indicate a stronger, statistically significant negative relationship between absences and achievement than what would have been suggested otherwise. Implications are discussed.”

Gottfried, M. A. (2011). Absent peers in elementary years: The negative classroom effects of unexcused absences on standardized testing outcomes. Teachers College Record, 113(8), 1597–1632. Full text available for purchase at

From the abstract: “Background/Context: This article addresses the classroom contextual effects of absences on student achievement. Previous research on peer effects has predominantly focused on peer socioeconomic status or classroom academic ability and its effects on classmates. However, the field has been limited by not discerning the individual-level academic effects of being in classrooms with absent peers. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of the Study: The purpose of this study is to determine the peer effects of absent students in urban elementary school classrooms. Population/Participants/Subjects: The data set is longitudinal and comprises entire populations of five elementary school cohorts within the School District of Philadelphia, for a total of 33,420 student observations. Individual student records were linked to teacher and classroom data and to census block neighborhood information. Research Design: To examine the educational effects of absent peers, this study employed an empirical specification of the education production function. The dependent variables were Stanford Achievement Test Ninth Edition (SAT9) reading and math scores. Findings: Models differentiated between unexcused and total absence measures and indicated that the peer effect of absences was driven by negative effects associated with classroom rates of unexcused absences rather with rates of total absences. These findings were obtained after controlling for student, neighborhood, teacher, and classroom characteristics. Conclusions/Recommendations: Not only are absences detrimental to the absentee, but they also have a pervasive effect on the achievement of other students in the classroom.”

Gottfried, M. A. (2009). Excused versus unexcused: How student absences in elementary school affect academic achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(4), 392–415. Full text available for purchase at

From the abstract: “The literature on school absences has focused predominantly on the reasons for student truancy, or it has assessed only aggregate student absences in their effect on achievement. However, this study brings forth a new issue: the relationship between types of absences—excused versus unexcused—and school performance. With a quantitative model of educational achievement on a longitudinal multilevel data set of all second- through fourth-grade students in the Philadelphia School District from 1994 to 2000, this study disaggregated absence information to provide new insight on the attendance–achievement relationship. Specifically, a model using fixed effects with classroom-level clustering was employed to determine how the distinction among varying proportions of excused versus unexcused absences related to students’ standardized test performance in reading and math. This article demonstrates that distinguishing between students with high rates of excused or unexcused absences is significant. Having a higher proportion of excused absences to total absences exhibits a positive relationship between reading and math test scores. Conversely, students with a higher proportion of unexcused absences places them at academic risk, particularly in math achievement and as early as in elementary school. Implications for policy are discussed.”

Ready, D. D. (2010). Socioeconomic disadvantage, school attendance, and early cognitive development: The differential effects of school exposure. Sociology of Education, 83(4), 271–286. Full text is available for purchase at

From the abstract: “Over the past several decades, research has documented strong relationships between social class and children’s cognitive abilities. These initial cognitive differences, which are substantial at school entry, increase as children progress through school. Despite the robust findings associated with this research, authors have generally neglected the extent to which school absenteeism exacerbates social class differences in academic development among young children. Using growth-curve analyses within a three-level hierarchical linear modeling framework, this study employs data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K) to examine the links between children’s social class, school absences, and academic growth during kindergarten and first grade. Results suggest that the effects of schooling on cognitive development are stronger for lower socioeconomic status (SES) children and that the findings associated with theories of summer learning loss are applicable to literacy development during early elementary school. Indeed, although they continue to achieve at lower absolute levels, socioeconomically disadvantaged children who have good attendance rates gain more literacy skills than their higher SES peers during kindergarten and first grade.”

Utah Education Policy Center. (2012). Research brief: Chronic absenteeism. Salt Lake City: Author. Retrieved from

From the research brief: “This research brief focuses on Chronic Absenteeism (CA) in Utah public schools. We address:

  • The students who are most likely to be chronically absent
  • A demographic profile of chronically absent students
  • Patterns in chronic absenteeism over time
  • Relationships between chronic absenteeism and lower standardized test scores
  • Relationships between chronic absenteeism and dropping out
  • The extent to which grade point average (GPA) mediates the relationship between chronic absenteeism and dropping out.”

Relevant Resources to Consult

Attendance Works

From the website: “Attendance Works is a national and state initiative that promotes better policy and practice around school attendance. We promote tracking chronic absence data for each student beginning in kindergarten, or ideally earlier, and partnering with families and community agencies to intervene when poor attendance is a problem for students or schools.”

REL West at WestEd (Every Day Counts Policy Forum, September 18, 2014) –

From the website: “Sponsored by the Utah State Office of Education and REL West at WestEd, this forum for education decision-makers and policymakers explored ways to decrease student chronic absence from school to improve their outcomes. Learning from research and practice, participants worked together to develop and recommend effective and supportive attendance policies at the state and local levels.”

REL West at WestEd (Every Day Counts Event, September 26, 2013) –

From the website: “Over 160 Utah educators, policymakers, and community members spent a day working together to ensure that all Utah students benefit from attending school regularly. The goals of the event were for participants to:

  • Develop an awareness of the consequences of chronic absenteeism for student outcomes, particularly as they relate to students in Utah; and
  • Explore strategies that can be employed at the site or district level to increase attendance and mitigate the effects of chronic absenteeism.

Following opening remarks by Martell Menlove, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Karl Wilson, Director of Special and Federal Programs at the Utah State Office of Education (USOE), the audience heard national attendance expert Hedy Chang, Director of Attendance Works, frame the issue of chronic absenteeism and its impact on student outcomes and offer ideas for taking action to reduce chronic absence.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Chronic absenteeism early literacy achievement (first grade, second grade, third grade)
  • Chronic absenteeism early literacy proficiency (first grade, second grade, third grade)
  • Chronic absenteeism early literacy read (first grade, second grade, third grade)
  • Truancy attendance preschool early literacy kindergarten

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC and the Institute of Education Sciences publications and products search engine for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. We also searched Google and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.