By: Ted Wills, Ruth Curran Neild, Molly Pileggi
School learning starts with school attendance. Students need to be in school to receive instruction and learn from their teachers and peers. When schools have high rates of poor attendance, their academic achievement levels suffer.
Combine the importance of attendance with the increased student autonomy that comes with starting ninth grade. Students are often held to increasing academic expectations that put more of the responsibility in their own hands. If students react to those changes by disengaging from school, their academic futures could be in danger. In fact, a 2017 report by the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) found that the stronger a student’s ninth grade attendance, the more likely that he or she will graduate on time.
This report studies attendance patterns of first-time SDP ninth graders during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. It examines the spread of overall attendance rates in these two student cohorts, patterns over the course of their ninth grade year, and how those patterns differ for students with different levels of academic achievement.
The mean attendance rate for first-time SDP ninth graders was 86 percent. This means that a typical ninth grader missed about one out of every six instructional days. This average is skewed somewhat by students with many absences, but it is still the case that more than 40 percent of first-time ninth graders miss more than one in every 10 instructional days.
Attendance drops from eighth to ninth grade, for all levels of eighth grade attendance. While eighth grade attendance is a good predictor of ninth grade attendance, even students with the strongest attendance profiles show a decline in attendance rates from eighth to ninth grade.
Ninth grade attendance slowly but steadily declines as the year goes on, with a sharp drop off in the last two weeks of the year. This gradual decline is true of students at all levels of attendance, though students with the lowest attendance rates decline at a faster rate as the year goes on.
Students with lower attendance rates are absent more often and for more days per absence than students with higher attendance rates. Students with attendance rates below 80 percent averaged almost 20 absences and 2.7 days out per absence.
Poor report card grades do not typically lead to sharp changes in attendance. From the first two weeks of school, attendance tends to be lower for students that receive poor report card grades, but their attendance rates don’t change after receiving their first report card.
Students that end ninth grade on track to graduate have higher attendance than those that do not. Students that end ninth grade off track begin the year with lower attendance than those that end up on track. The attendance difference between these two groups gets larger as the year progresses.
Policy and Implications
Schools can identify and begin to intervene with students at risk of having poor attendance from the first weeks of school, since on average, a student who ends the year with poor overall attendance also started the year with poorer attendance than his/her peers.
Teachers, administrators, parents, and students should all keep in mind that attendance matters and is associated with achievement. Students who have poor attendance also tend to have lower achievement in their core courses and more often end up off track at the end of their first year of high school. Remembering and messaging these facts could help motivate a change in attendance behavior.