Chronic Absenteeism In Baltimore—A Look At The Numbers

Jun 6, 2013

A web-exclusive installment in our year-long series Empty Desks: The Effects of Chronic Absenteeism.

Chronic absenteeism—missing 20 days or more of school in a year—dropped in Baltimore city last year, but only by about 2 percent. This graph compares school years 2009-2010, 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The numbers were compiled by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Credit Maryland State Department of Education

They show increases in absenteeism from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 in pre-K, and kindergarten, elementary schools and high schools. Only the middle school grades showed a steady decline in absenteeism.

The biggest problems are in high schools, where the absenteeism figures have surpassed 40 percent over the last several years. That’s more than double the statewide average of only 18 percent of chronically absent high school students. “High school is still a challenge that no has cracked,” says Robert Balfanz, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University who co-authored the first national study on chronic absenteeism last year.

Balfanz and other education experts say that may be because high school students are more independent in that they usually get to school on their own. In addition, some had been attending school sporadically since earlier grades, were held back and lost interest as they became markedly older than their classmates.

Large cities such as Baltimore usually experience higher levels of chronic absenteeism than suburban and rural areas, Balfanz says, in large part because of high poverty levels in urban centers. “Poverty creates obstacles for kids to come to school every day,” he said. Those obstacles include transportation problems, absent parents, students having to take care of younger siblings, parenthood and homelessness.

As a result of missing more than a month of school, chronically absent students fall behind. They do not perform as well on state standardized exams as other students and they’re more likely to be held back, drop out of school or get in trouble with the law. “We realize when students are chronically absent, they…are more likely not to graduate on time or not at all,” said Karen Ndour, the district’s student support and safety director. 

District figures show that only 37.4 percent of chronically absent students graduate on time, compared to 87 percent of students with sterling attendance records. Nationally, only six states, including Maryland, track chronic absenteeism. Balfanz says that has hampered progress on the issue. Without carefully kept records it is difficult to develop and implement solutions. “Baltimore to its credit has really made major efforts to address this, but nationally, in many cities and states, it’s not recognized as an issue,” he said. “It’s like a bacteria in a hospital. It’s not seen, but it’s creating havoc and undercutting lots of efforts to make schools better. You can have the best teachers and curriculum but if students don’t come on a regular basis, they won’t benefit from it.”

Empty Desks is made possible through a grant from Open Society Institute-Baltimore: investing in solutions to Baltimore’s toughest problems.