Middle School Absences Send Important Signal

September 25, 2019   |   By Madison Education Partnership

Missing school matters, but not for the reasons you might think.

A new report from the Madison Education Partnership finds that rather than causing students to do poorly in school, unexcused absences may be signals of significant challenges in students’ lives. To respond, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is working to understand and act on those signals.

Student absences in grades six through eight have steadily increased in MMSD since 2012. This trend, as well as a growing national focus on what some call an ‘attendance crisis,’ led researchers from the Madison Education Partnership (MEP) and their school district collaborators to investigate the relationships between student absences, student demographic characteristics and school climate, as well as how these patterns change as students progress through grades five to nine.

“MEP and MMSD wanted to learn more about how attendance impacts how kids learn and feel in their schools,” says Andrew Statz, Executive Director of Research, Accountability & Data Use at MMSD and MEP Steering Committee member. “We know the national conversation, but wanted to dig deeper into our local story. We know from previous reports that attendance does not drive elementary student academic success in MMSD; we wondered, is the story the same in middle school?”

Over the past year, MEP has brought together MMSD staff and UW researchers to identify the questions that matter most around attendance, review the preliminary findings and identify what these findings mean for action. What they discovered confirms several findings from an earlier report of elementary school students. According to the authors, simply improving attendance is unlikely to yield substantial improvements in academic achievement or reduce the achievement difference between advantaged and less advantaged students.

The team wanted to know more, so they dug into additional questions about attendance. Based on an MMSD climate survey, the report states that students who have more positive perceptions of their school, specifically regarding feelings of safety and belonging, were more likely to be at school. The report also finds the median number of absences that each student receives has risen each year from 2012 to 2018. Not only do absences increase as students age, but they are increasingly on the rise during the period from middle to high school.   

Lead researcher Katie Eklund, a co-director of MEP, as well as a UW-Madison assistant professor of educational psychology says this middle school transition is the time to intervene. “These are the early predictors of worse attendance in high school – it is important for schools to pay attention to what might be leading to absences, especially during middle school.”

In partnership with MEP, the district’s attendance team has spearheaded new work focused on attendance. These efforts include identifying and testing research-based, proactive attendance approaches, deepening understanding of why students miss school to help craft strategies, strengthening existing recording practices and creating stronger systems to intervene on habitual truancy.

“The collaborative work with MEP to create, understand and act on this report has invigorated our team,” states Megan Miller, the Lead Attendance Social Worker at MMSD and member of the MEP Attendance Research Design Team. “We have brought together staff from all over the district to consider how we act on the signal attendance sends. Middle school students are sending us a message; we need to learn what that message means and respond supportively.”

The report concludes with recommendations for the district to further investigate the reasons students miss school and explore practices that may affect school climate.

These initiatives, as well as detailed methodology, are elaborated in the full report here.


About MEP

The Madison Education Partnership is a research-practice partnership between the UW–Madison School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Madison Metropolitan School District. Its collaborative mission is to engage in and support high-quality, problem-based research, contribute to policy discussions based on its research and share new knowledge to improve the experiences and individual outcomes for all district students.

The partnership engages UW–Madison researchers and faculty; district administration, teachers and staff; as well as stakeholders from the broader Madison community to support the development and use of high-quality, relevant and timely research.