05 SES 04 A, Absenteeism
The strong relationship between individuals’ socioeconomic background and academic achievement is a well-established finding (Van de Werfhorst & Mijs, 2010). A potential mechanism by which students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may perform less well in school than students from more advantaged backgrounds is inequality in school attendance. Evidence suggests that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are overrepresented among those absent from school and have a higher risk of school absenteeism compared to peers from more advantaged backgrounds (e.g., Gennetian et al. 2018; Gottfried & Gee, 2017).
Social disparities in school attendance are crucial because missing out on school has detrimental consequences for students’ academic achievement. Students who are frequently absent from school miss out on teacher-led lessons, peer interactions, or other activities that may stimulate their learning and, ultimately, their performance in exams (Morrissey et al., 2014). Besides, students who are frequently absent might feel less integrated into their class and struggle to participate in classroom activities and interactions with peers and teachers, which, in turn, is harmful to their learning. Indeed studies from the US found that school absenteeism overall is associated with poor school performance (Gottfried, 2009, 2010, 2014; Ready, 2010).
However, to understand the underlying mechanisms of why absences decrease school performance, it is crucial to investigate the association between different forms of absenteeism and attainment. Being absent from school may result from various reasons, including sickness, family holidays, truancy, or temporary exclusion. For instance, the association between some forms of absenteeism (e.g., truancy) and academic achievement may inform us about the impact of other negative behaviours such as alcohol, substance abuse, crime, or delinquency on school performance (e.g. Henry & Huizinga, 2007; Hirschfield & Gasper, 2011). Exclusionary punishment can also emotionally and psychologically alienate students from their teachers and may lead to feelings of isolation, stigmatisation, or disengagement (Arcia, 2006). Authorised absences (e.g., in case of sickness) may be less harmful to children’s school performance if teachers are more willing to support students when they know the reason for being absent was legitimate. While a few studies have differentiated between authorised and unauthorised absences (e.g., Gershenson et al. 2017; Gottfried, 2009), there is limited evidence about how the association between absences and achievement varies according to more precise reasons.
The association between school absences and academic achievement may also depend on students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds may have a “compensatory advantage” over children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds when faced with detrimental life-course events (Bernardi, 2014). School absenteeism may be more harmful to children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds since their parents have neither time nor resources to compensate for school absences by supporting their children in catching up with the missed school lessons (Ready 2010). This argument is in line with a large body of research on the “summer learning gap” showing that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds gain fewer academic skills during summer holidays than children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (Alexander et al., 2001; Downey et al., 2004). This literature suggests that formal schooling is more important for the development of children from disadvantaged backgrounds than for their affluent peers.
Our research questions are as follows:
- Is there a negative association between school absenteeism and academic achievement?
- Does this association vary by the form of absenteeism considered (sickness-related absence, family holidays, truancy, exceptional domestic circumstances temporary exclusion)?
- Does social background moderate the associations between different forms of absenteeism and educational attainment?
For our analysis, we use the Scottish Longitudinal Study (SLS). The SLS is a large-scale, anonymized linkage study designed to capture 5.3% of the Scottish population, based on 20 semi-random birthdates. Among other linkages, the SLS links household information for SLS members from the 2001 Census data to administrative school data for the years 2007 to 2010. For each school year, the administrative education data consist of records from the School Census, administrative data on absence and exclusion, and attainment data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). Our sample consists of two cohorts of SLS members who are in the final year of compulsory schooling in 2007 and 2008 and for whom parental information from the Census 2001 is available (n=4,419). The SLS data provide unique and detailed information for each SLS member in our sample on three sets of information of particular interest for our study: 1) The 2001 Census data provide detailed information on family background, household, and neighbourhood characteristics. 2) Education data include information on overall school absenteeism, sickness-related absenteeism, family holidays, exceptional circumstances, truancy, and temporary exclusion. 3) The SQA data include detailed information on the choice of subjects, the level of difficulty chosen, and the school performance. Using a rich set of confounders from the Census and school census, we estimated the adjusted association between different forms of school absenteeism and academic achievement using OLS regressions. To address issues of reverse causality and unobserved heterogeneity when examining the link between absenteeism and attainment, we undertook several robustness checks (controlling for early childhood indicators from health data (e.g., low birth weight), modelling post-compulsory academic achievement and adjusting for the previous achievement, and first-difference estimation). To analyse whether the association between forms of school absenteeism and academic achievement varies across socioeconomic groups, we modelled interaction terms between various socioeconomic indicators (e.g., parental education, parental class) and forms of school absenteeism in linear regressions.
Our results show that school absenteeism has a detrimental effect on children’s academic achievement over and above socioeconomic characteristics and other factors. Our study’s unique contribution is evidence suggesting that the detrimental impact of school absenteeism on students’ educational outcomes depends on the reason for school absence. We found that absences due to truancy and temporary exclusion had unique adverse effects on students’ academic achievement. Sickness-related absences were also detrimental to adolescents’ results in high-stakes national examinations. However, those arising from exceptional domestic circumstances or family holidays did not cause harm to student achievement. The findings on truancy, exclusion and sickness suggest that there are other mechanisms at play (behaviour, health, psychosocial aspects), in addition to learning loss. The finding that absences due to family holidays and exceptional circumstances cause no harm to student achievement may be due to the shorter number of days taken. As a result, adolescents may not miss a lot of core learning when being absent from school. Family holidays are also the only form of school absence which may involve positive experiences and learning opportunities. It is also likely that families generally take children out of school for holidays at the end of the school term when most of the core learning has already taken place. Our results further show that school absenteeism has a detrimental impact on the academic achievement of all students. However, contrary to our expectations, the negative effect is somewhat stronger among students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, i.e., students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds suffer a greater loss in academic achievement when being absent than students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Put differently, the gap in academic achievement between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds is smaller among students that are more frequently absent than among those who are rarely absent.
Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2001). Schools, Achievement, and Inequality: A Seasonal Perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(2), 171–191. Arcia, E. (2006). Achievement and enrollment status of suspended students: Outcomes in a large, multicultural school district. Education and Urban Society, 38(3), 359–369. Bernardi, F. (2014). Compensatory Advantage as a Mechanism of Educational Inequality. Sociology of Education, 87(2), 74–88. Downey, D. B., von Hippel, P. T., & Broh, B. A. (2004). Are schools the great equalizer? Cognitive inequality during the summer months and the school year. American Sociological Review, 69(5), 613–635. Gennetian, L. A., Rodrigues, C., Hill, H. D., & Morris, P. A. (2018). Stability of income and school attendance among NYC students of low- income families. Economics of Education Review, 63, 20–30. Gershenson, S., Jacknowitz, A., & Brannegan, A. (2017). Are student absences worth the worry in U.S. primary schools? Education Finance and Policy, 12, 137–165. Gottfried, M. A. (2009). Excused Versus Unexcused: How Student Absences in Elementary School Affect Academic Achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(4), 392–415. Gottfried, M. A. (2010). Evaluating the Relationship Between Student Attendance and Achievement in Urban Elementary and Middle Schools: An Instrumental Variables Approach. American Educational Research Jounal, 47(2), 434–465. Gottfried, M. A. (2014). Chronic Absenteeism and Its Effects on Students’ Academic and Socioemotional Outcomes. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 19(2), 53–75. Gottfried, M. A., & Gee, K. A. (2017). Identifying the Determinants of Chronic Absenteeism: A Bioecological Systems Approach. Teachers College Record, 119, 1–34. Henry, K. L., & Huizinga, D. H. (2007). Truancy’s Effect on the Onset of Drug Use among Urban Adolescents Placed at Risk. Journal of Adolescent Health, 4, 358.e9-358.e17. Hirschfield, P. J., & Gasper, J. (2011). The Relationship Between School Engagement and Delinquency in Late Childhood and Early Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(1), 3–22. Morrissey, T. W., Hutchison, L., & Winsler, A. (2014). Family income, school attendance, and academic achievement in elementary school. Developmental Psychology, 50(3), 741–753. doi:10.1037/a0033848 Ready, D. D. (2010). Socioeconomic Disadvantage, School Attendance, and Early Cognitive Development. Sociology of Education, 83(4), 271–286. Van de Werfhorst, H. G., & Mijs, J. J. B. (2010). Achievement Inequality and the Institutional Structure of Educational Systems: A Comparative Perspective. Annual Revue of Sociology, 36, 407–428.
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