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Student absenteeism in Montana is the worst in the nation, and it’s off the charts among the state’s American Indian students, according to a new national study of student attendance and test scores.

The report by Attendance Works, a national advocacy organization, reinforces the link between chronic absenteeism and academic success, and for the first time offers a state-by-state snapshot of the problem.

Researchers compared student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, with the number of days each student reported missing school in the previous month.

Nationwide, one in five students replied that they had missed at least three days in the last month — which over the course of the school year adds up to about a month. But in Montana that number was 26 percent of fourth-graders and 29 percent of eighth grade students, the highest rates of any state.

And nearly half of the state’s Native American eighth-graders — 44 percent — fell into the same category, according to researcher Alan Ginsberg, who analyzed NAEP data for the report.

Montana’s absenteeism rate for American Indians outpaced the national average of 31 percent and was one of the highest rates Ginsberg found.

“The results for Montana suggest that there are real problems in absenteeism," he said.

The gap in NAEP test scores between students who reported excessive absences and those who didn’t exceeded a grade level of knowledge in both reading and math.

While the correlation between missed school and lower achievement is well established, researchers said they were struck by how the trend held in every state, grade level and student category.

The data help estimate chronic absenteeism — which Attendance Works defines as missing 10 percent of the school year, regardless of the reason, though state definitions vary.

Students who are chronically absent are more likely to struggle academically by third grade and are at increased risk to drop out of high school.

Many states, including Montana, measure truancy and average daily attendance but not chronic absenteeism.

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Montana uses average daily attendance as one part of its annual No Child Left Behind report card. School statewide reported an average daily attendance of 94 percent, well above the target of 80 percent.

Researchers said states would be better off tracking chronic absenteeism data, which tracks individual students, as well. That information could be used to identify struggling schools or keep tabs on students who move between districts.

“Once you know who’s absent you start to see why they’re absent and you start to come up with solutions for getting them back in school,” said Phyllis Jordan, report author and Attendance Works communications lead.

Individual schools and districts in Montana can decide to track detailed attendance data if they choose, according to the Office of Public Instruction. In Billings, each school decides independently how to collect and use absenteeism data, said Brenda Koch, executive director of school leadership support.

Some schools are getting state support as part of locally driven efforts to reduce absenteeism.

Just over a dozen Montana communities are participating in an early warning pilot program that uses various measures, including attendance, to identify at-risk students, said Allyson Hagen, OPI communications director.

Another 27 districts awarded Graduation Matters state grants list improving attendance as one of their strategies to raise graduation rates.

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