The two terms describe different aspects of our absenteeism problem and require different approaches to bringing students back to school every day.

First, let’s take truancy, a term that generally refers to unexcused absences. Federal law required states to track truancy but left it to states to come up with their own definition. In Maine, truancy is defined as missing:

  • 7 full days of unexcused absences or 5 consecutive school day of unexcused absences for students who are age 7 and have not completed 6 grade
  • 10 full days of unexcused absences or 7 consecutive days of unexcused absences for students who have completed 6th grade.

With its focus on unexcused absences, truancy naturally leads to an emphasis on students who are just missing school without an excuse, skipping school and violating mandatory attendance requirements. Fixing the problem becomes a question of ensuring compliance, often left to front-office administrators, and in the most severe cases, to the legal system. Some recommend punitive consequences for truancy — such as suspensions, jail time and fines — for children and parents. Some communities and courts have devised effective approaches to reducing truancy, but in other places, punitive efforts are pushing students out of school.

Chronic absenteeism, on the other hand, incorporates all absences:

  • excused
  • unexcused
  • suspensions

The focus is on the academic consequences of this lost instructional time and on preventing absences before students miss so much school that they fall behind. It recognizes that students miss school for many understandable issues such as asthma or bullying or homelessness or unreliable transportation, for which a punitive response is not appropriate. But what helps is working with families to share the importance of attendance and to fix the underlying problems that lead to absenteeism.

Given this broader focus, addressing chronic absenteeism becomes an issue for the entire community. Medical providers can help address health challenges; transit and housing agencies can resolve other barriers to attendance; volunteers from businesses and faith communities can mentor students and support families. These approaches can also reduce truancy.

Many researchers and schools monitor how many students are missing 10 percent or more of the school year. That is about two days a month, or 18 days a year. The U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights recently released data in June, 2016 in their report 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection. They found that 13% or 6.5 million students in the US missed 15 or more days of school during the 2013-14 school year.

This US DOE data represents the first time that many schools and districts will know how many students are missing so much school that they are falling behind academically. Educators, families and community partners can use this opportunity to dig deep into their numbers to determine who is missing too much school and why. Taking a data informed, non-punitive approach that draws upon insights from students, families, teachers and community partners is what leads to strategies that can improve attendance and achievement.

Reprinted and adapted with permission from Attendance Works