Truancy rates are higher among California's low-income students, report says

Report: About 90% of California students with severe attendance problems are low-income students

Across California, truancy rates for students from low-income backgrounds were disproportionately higher than for their more affluent peers during the 2013-14 school year, according to a report released Thursday.

Data from the California Department of Education indicates more than 744,000, or about 1 in 5, students were truant, more than a 1% increase from the previous year.

The state attorney general's office partnered with Aeries Student Information System, a company that helps manage student data, to release the voluntary survey of 32 school districts, covering a total of about 150,000 students. Of all students with severe attendance problems, defined as missing 36 days or more, about 90% were low-income.

The highest levels of truancy were in the earliest grades: 26% of kindergartners were tardy or absent for three or more days, compared with 21% of fifth-grade students; 14% of kindergartners missed 18 or more days of class while 6.7% of fifth-graders did. This puts them at a disadvantage to achieve elementary reading and math benchmarks, according to the report.

These are crucial years to develop literacy skills that help students prepare for their subsequent academic studies, the report notes, and students who don't read at grade level by third grade are four times more likely than their peers to drop out of school.

Students of color are similarly vulnerable: African American students missed 10% or more of the school year at almost four times the rate of all students.

The report says it's unclear why this number is so high, but suggests that these students may encounter a number of issues that make it hard to get to school, such as health and transportation problems.

The state's Local Control Funding Formula lets school districts allot money to help such students, but the attorney general says to reap the benefits they must be in school.

"Good education policies are meaningless if students aren't at their desks," state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said in a statement.

Attendance rates for California's fourth- and eighth-graders were better than those in about 40 other states according to Attendance Works, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to preventing students being absent from school. But nearly 20% missed three or more days in the month leading up to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test.

Students missing class puts a strain on the state economy, according to Harris' office. School districts lose an estimated $1 billion annually of funding because of student absences; an additional $46 billion is lost every year due to reduced earnings, stunted economic growth and juvenile criminal court costs.

Individual student attendance and its long-term impact are difficult to track because there's not a statewide system to do so. The Legislature passed a number of bills that target truancy and attendance accountability at the end of August.

Among other things, the bills would allow school districts to better track attendance rates and truancy intervention outcomes. Proponents are hopeful that the legislation would keep students in school. Gov. Jerry Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the measures.

sara.hayden@latimes.com
Twitter: @haydensaraa

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