Half of city school students are chronically truant: report

Nearly half of all students in the School District of Philadelphia were chronically truant last year, up sharply over the previous 12 months.

High absenteeism is linked to lower academic achievement in math and reading, and higher dropout rates.

The Philadelphia school district is already grappling with plunging enrollment and low academic achievement. There are also wide gaps in achievement among Black and Latino students and those from economically disadvantaged families, according to new test score data.

55,586 students racked up at least 10 unexcused absences, which the district defines as chronic truancy, during the 2021-22 school year. They accounted for more than 48% of the approximately 115,000 district students, per the district. That's a near 17% rise on the numbers recorded the prior school year, according to district data.

Chronic absenteeism rose nationally during the last school year, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The center categorized chronic absenteeism as students who miss at least 10% of the school year.

Of note: Truancy is evaluated differently than chronic absenteeism in Pennsylvania. The state defines chronic absenteeism as students enrolled for at least 90 days who have missed more than 10% of the academic year, or 18 days.  Whereas a student is considered "habitually truant" if they have unexcused absences for six or more school days during the school year.

Unlike chronic absenteeism, there is no national policy around student truancy, which is determined at the state and local level, Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, told Axios. The qualifications for a valid absence can be arbitrary from district to district, she said.

"The solution to improving attendance is to find out why kids are missing so much school and a designation of excused or unexcused [absences] doesn't help you understand that," Chang said.

Chronically truant students in Philly can be referred to truancy court, per district policy. The district's list of excusable absences includes receiving a health care service, illness, quarantine, recovering from an accident, and out-of-school suspension. Invalid excuses for absences include babysitting, waking up late, illness of a family member and vacation.

Michael Gottfried, a professor for the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, called the district's rise in unexcused absences a red flag for student disengagement.

Remote learning during the pandemic revealed how disengaged students really were as they could easily close their laptops during online lessons, he told Axios.

Gottfried said transitions can be a main driver of absenteeism, which could explain the rise in the district's truancy levels as students returned to the classroom. “If kids realized they didn’t like school when they were on Zoom, that makes it even more challenging to get them back into school,” he said.

The state is expected to release data about chronic absenteeism for school districts in an annual report this winter.

From Axios Philadelphia
Photo: Ivan Alecsik