Most states are now including a measure of student absenteeism in their Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability system for the so-called “fifth indicator” of student success, so many districts are now keen to strengthen student attendance. The results of a recent study could help.

Researchers at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley examined the results of a randomized experiment where parents were provided with information about their child’s absences (or not) to see if the information intervention actually reduced chronic absenteeism.

The study was conducted in the School District of Philadelphia, the eighth largest in the U.S. The sample included parents of over 28,000 high-risk kindergarten through grade twelve students. Analysts defined high-risk students as those absent three or more days more than the modal student in their school at their grade level, and those with no more than over two standard deviations more days absent than the mean student in their school-grade. (The districts believed these students had most likely left and not informed them or were experiencing a grave challenge that would make them less responsive to treatment.)

Analysts randomly assigned households in equal numbers to a control group or one of three personalized treatment conditions, whereby they received up to five mailed postcards throughout the 2014–15 school year. One card was a generic reminder that students fall behind when they are absent and parents can help with absences; the second added special information about their child’s total absences; and the third added yet another data point that included the modal number of absences among their child’s classmates for relative comparison purposes. The control group received no other communication other than typical school communications like report cards.

Compared to the control group, analysts found that students in the “total absences” condition were 10 percent less likely to be absent and students in the “relative absences” condition were 11 percent less likely. Students in the “generic reminder” group were just 8 percent less likely to be absent, demonstrating that providing the additional information helped. They also analyzed whether siblings in the household were impacted and found that, among those students assigned to the generic reminder, there was no evidence of spillover effects on the sibling. But for those students receiving the other two types of postcard reminders, the spillover effects on the siblings were nearly as large as the effects for the “focal” student.

They find no evidence that treatment effects varied by student grade level, gender, race, or total absences in the previous year. And they were unfortunately unable to assess whether the invention impacted standardized test scores.

Finally, they surveyed parents to confirm they could remember receiving the postcards. A majority responded affirmatively. The survey also showed that parents did not change how they viewed the importance of reducing absences if they had received the generic reminder card versus the other two types.

Analysts hypothesize that parents may not realize how many days their kids are actually missing across the span of a full school year as those absences accumulate. Hence the more informative cards adjusted their perceptions.

Let’s hear it for yet another study showing that inexpensive informational nudges can make a big difference in influencing student or parental behaviors. After all, high-dollar, high-stakes interventions don’t always work out.

SOURCE: Todd Rogers and Avi Feller, “Reducing Student Absences at Scale by Targeting Parents’ Misbeliefs,” Nature Human Behaviour (April 2018).

Policy Priority:

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

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