The Challenge of Chronic Absenteeism in Elementary School

As Mr. Attridge looked out over his third grade classroom, he couldn’t help but notice the empty seats in the second row on the left. It was only a few students and it was not every day, but he knew that on any given day, there seemed to be a good chance that at least one of his students would be absent. At the school level, few were concerned with absences since they posted a 97 percent average daily attendance rate, but he had a group of students who missed a lot of school.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 5.42.22 PMIt was the first week of February, and these students had already missed 20 days of school each since August; not in a row, but one day here, two days there. While there was no clear pattern and the bulk of absences were excused, these students were chronically absent and falling behind their peers. What Mr. Attridge didn’t realize was this challenge was occurring not just in his school, but in almost every elementary school in the state.

A new report by the department’s research and strategy team, in collaboration with the office of safe and supportive schools, documents the extent and impact of chronic absenteeism in the early grades.

This report finds that over 45,000 elementary school students—over 10 percent of the elementary students in the state—are chronically absent, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year.

These absences, which add up to a month of missed school, happen in clusters for some students and are spread throughout the year for most.

As teachers like Mr. Attridge know, when students miss instructional time, their achievement suffers. The report confirms this by noting that in Tennessee chronically absent students are significantly less likely to be on grade level in both English language arts and math end of year exams. For example, in 2014-15, 28 percent of chronically absent third graders were proficient in English language arts compared to 44 percent of non-chronically absent students.

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The report provides guidance on identifying which students are most likely to be chronically absent and strategies for supporting those students. To encourage students to attend school every day, some schools have initiated innovative strategies such as dance parties (read the story here). Strategic use of data and relationships with families are essential to understanding the underlying issues that drive chronic absenteeism.

To view the report, please click here. To see the levels of chronic absenteeism by the district and school level, please visit the department’s data downloads page. For questions about the report, please email

For additional information or suggestions regarding strategies to address chronic absenteeism, please contact Pat Conner,, or Mike Herrmann, from the office of healthy, safe and supportive schools.