A person’s academic performance, defined as the extent to which a student has met the intended short- and long-term educational goals, plays a significant role in defining the range of further educational opportunities and the chances of graduating from secondary school on time. Taking that into account, academic performance and different factors affecting it attract the attention of many education researchers. To develop a more profound understanding of the links between academic performance and the amount of time that children spend at school and translate this knowledge into evidence-based educational policy decisions, it is critical to study school attendance in different populations and educational contexts. Secondary students with disabilities, be it substantial physical difficulties or limitations in intellectual functioning, present a group that is often overlooked as a research sample despite being extremely vulnerable (Bell et al., 2017; Mizunoya et al., 2016). Today, research on academic performance and school attendance is typically focused on normally developing school students (Bell et al., 2017). This literature review paper identifies what is currently known about the effect of poor attendance on academic performance in disabled secondary students and their non-disabled peers.
The literature search and review procedure was used to answer the following question: “How does student attendance impact the academic performance of disabled secondary students in comparison to their non-disabled peers?” The Google Scholar tool for the advanced search of scientific studies was utilized to find journal articles, scientific reports, and theses/dissertations published within the last five years. Among the search terms were “student attendance,” “poor attendance,” “student/academic performance,” and “absenteeism” combined with “secondary students” or “secondary/middle school” and with “disability/disabled students.” Due to the limited number of original studies that would draw comparisons between disabled and non-disabled students in the given age group, some works reviewing the previously reported findings relevant to the question have also been included and analyzed.
Review and Analysis of Themes in the Literature
Student Attendance and Academic Achievement in Secondary Students
The connections between student attendance and academic achievement in general secondary student populations are well-documented. For instance, Komakech (2015) cites the findings reported by Ready in 2010, according to which there is a positive correlation between the two variables in school students of diverse backgrounds. This link, the researcher states, finds reflection in chronically absent students’ test scores compared to the results of their peers with acceptable attendance rates (Komakech, 2015). The connection between the variables in question is even stronger when it comes to school students that are vulnerable in terms of their families’ socio-economic situation (Komakech, 2015). In their analytical study in a mixed sample of both disabled and non-disabled secondary students, Liu et al. (2019) demonstrate that absences in middle school have pronounced effects on educational achievement in different students. As per their statistical inferences, not showing up for ten math classes reduces an average student’s math test scores and course grade by 7% and 19%, respectively, and also leads to the decreased chances of graduating on time (Liu et al., 2019). Thus, attendance and the attainment of educational goals are closely interconnected.
Similarly to professional researchers, common students in developing countries share the opinion that student attendance affects academic achievement. In his research conducted using the survey method, Komakech (2015) analyzes the survey responses of more than 350 school students from Northern Uganda and explores the population group’s perceptions of the links between academic performance and absenteeism in students. As his results suggest, 84% of students receiving universal secondary education in Uganda strongly agree that poor attendance reduces achievement, whereas only 6% express clear disagreement with the idea (Komakech, 2015). As per the survey responses, around 40% of secondary students regard insufficient academic performance as the most pronounced effect of absenteeism and attach more importance to it than to other potential consequences of absenteeism, including a lack of interest in studying, dropping out of school, and increases in the number of half-baked graduates (Komakech, 2015). Students’ perceptions regarding the outcomes of constant poor attendance shed light on the degree to which the problem of school absences is recognized globally.
The Role of Health Heterogeneity among Non-Disabled Students
Not being eligible for special education services or the absence of disability is not equal to the absence of health issues and physiological defects requiring regular healthcare visits. For instance, secondary students with congenital malformations, such as different types of orofacial clefts, face issues that may cause poor attendance even when they have no intellectual disabilities (Bell et al., 2017). Such defects increase a child’s risks of developing hearing impairments, speech issues, or more severe issues requiring hospitalization, thus contributing to frequent school absences resulting from urgent healthcare needs (Bell et al., 2017). According to the longitudinal study of over two thousand Australian elementary and secondary school students, non-disabled students with orofacial cleft have higher rates of absence compared to peers without the defect (Bell et al., 2017). In their systematic review of literature, Yoder and Cantrell (2019) highlight that non-disabled children with chronic health issues, except for hemophilia, have higher absenteeism rates and higher risks of poor academic performance and grade repetition compared to their healthier peers.
In non-disabled secondary students with congenital malformations, poor attendance due to unauthorized absences has been shown to have larger effects on academic achievement compared to excused absences (Bell et al., 2017). However, as the longitudinal study by Bell et al. (2017) suggests, the impact of school absences on children’s performance is not significantly different when it comes to non-disabled students with and without challenging congenital malformations. The researchers link these findings to the success of specific school-based interventions to support such children.
Different Types of Disabilities as a Predictor of Poor Student Attendance in Secondary Students
One theme that is consistent across numerous studies is that secondary students with different types of disabilities are significantly more likely to have poor attendance due to diverse reasons and face barriers to accessing educational services. According to the international survey research conducted by Mizunoya et al. (2016) in developing countries, disability reduces children’s chances of being included in education and attending school regularly, and these effects are pronounced in both boys and girls, residents of different African countries, and children coming from any family backgrounds. In their econometric analysis paper focused on children of the secondary school age from developing countries, Mizunoya et al. (2018) demonstrate that the school attendance gap between disabled and non-disabled children may reach up to 51%. The U.S. Department of Education reports a persistent gap between secondary students with and without disabilities in terms of school attendance. For instance, in the 2013-2014 academic year, the rate of chronically absent secondary students was around 18% in disabled children and 12% in their peers without disabilities (Sullivan, 2018).
Students with disabilities are commonly regarded as a high-risk population in terms of student attendance. In their literature review study focused on Japanese secondary students, Hong et al. (2019) mention that school refusal behaviors are more common in children with disabilities than in their non-disabled peers and state that secondary students with intellectual disabilities and comorbid diseases present a distinctive risk group. Based on the Civil Rights Data Collection statistical data, racial/ethnic minorities, financially disadvantaged students, and disabled students are the subgroups with the highest rates of excused and unexcused absences from school (Altiero, 2018). Similar findings peculiar to the United States are cited in the study by Garcia and Weiss (2018) – according to it, being a Hispanic English learner, a student with disabilities, an American Indian, or a child from a low-income family increases the average number of school absences. A descriptive study of secondary students in Ecuador conducted by Goodrich et al. (2017) lists disability and disease, as well as poverty, the unwillingness to attend school, and workplace/housework responsibilities, among the leading reasons for missing classes.
As modern research indicates, the type of disability should also be considered when examining the links between disabilities and problems with attendance. For instance, in their regression analysis study of absenteeism behaviors among American students aged between 5 and 17, Black and Zablotsky (2018) report that the strongest health-related predictors of chronic absenteeism include intellectual disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism. In their online survey study, Totsika et al. (2020) demonstrate that in children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, specific predictors of chronic absenteeism include going to a mainstream school, not living in a two-parent family, and parental joblessness. Bolton (2016) justifies the need for her case study research based on the premise that secondary students diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disabilities, including those with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, are the disability subgroup with the highest frequency of chronic absences. The literature review section of the researcher’s work contains references to an earlier study by Gwynne et al. published in 2009 that reports such findings peculiar to secondary students with EBD (Bolton, 2016).
The results of the longitudinal study by Chen et al. (2016) also support the idea of dissimilar patterns of chronic truancy in different disability subgroups. The analysis of over fifty thousand secondary students in the United States suggests that students with severe emotional disorders and learning disorders are more likely to have chronic (persistently high throughout the academic year) truancy trajectories compared to their peers with autism or intellectual disabilities (Chen et al., 2016). These findings imply that secondary students from the two subgroups face increased risks of academic failures resulting from poor attendance.
Academic Performance in Disabled and Non-Disabled Students
Contrary to intuitively obvious conclusions, there is no solid evidence to prove that the effects of frequent absences on performance are much more severe in secondary students qualified for special education services. In their study, Garcia and Weiss (2018) draw comparisons between students with and without IEPs in terms of performance gaps linked with absenteeism. According to the results, although the rates of absenteeism are higher in disabled students, the links between attendance and performance on math tests do not significantly differ due to one’s disability status. For instance, compared to their non-disabled peers with perfect attendance, non-disabled students who have missed from one to more than ten school days scored between 0.11 and 0.66 standard deviations lower on the NAEP mathematics assessment (Garcia & Weiss, 2018). As for the size of the same disadvantage for IEP students with school absences, those students scored between 0.05 and 0.52 standard deviations lower than IEP students who have not missed classes at all (Garcia & Weiss, 2018). Thus, whether poor attendance leads to more severe academic failures in disabled students than in their peers without disabilities remains an open question.
IEP students are believed to perform poorer compared to peers without disabilities, but such ideas are not always backed up with evidence. For instance, Christani et al. (2015) analyze data sets published within the frame of the National Adolescent Health project, including the GPAs, the number of absences, and IEP statuses of 1167 students from the United States. Based on the results of independent t-tests, the researchers reported a statistically significant difference between the means for justified absences in disabled students (1.87) and their non-disabled peers (1.62) (Christani et al., 2015). Nevertheless, more frequent absences in disabled students were not linked with lower mean GPAs compared to non-disabled children; instead, the average GPA of students without disabilities was 0.79 lower than that of disabled students (Christani et al., 2015). These results, as the researchers acknowledge, may be related to non-disabled students’ participation in a more difficult curriculum or stricter evaluation criteria.
Overall, the way of how attendance affects academic performance is very similar in disabled and non-disabled students, and there are studies to link the size of this effect with the causes of absences. Having analyzed the longitudinal data for secondary school students from Australia, Hancock et al. (2018) concluded that some reasons for missing school, such as illness, anxiety/depression, family responsibilities, and stress, were more associated with poor numeracy achievement than other possible reasons. Interestingly, Hancock et al. (2018) observed the same tendency in non-disabled grade 9 students and their peers with physical and mental disabilities and chronic health conditions.
Critique and Practical Applications
The main limitations of the conducted review refer to the methodological and quality heterogeneity of the studies, as well as a very limited number of studies that would compare disabled and non-disabled students with attention to both academic performance and student attendance rates. Regarding quality, the reviewed studies are dissimilar in terms of the sources of evidence and the extent to which the findings represent general tendencies instead of very specific cases. For instance, relevant findings reported by Chen et al. (2016), Garcia and Weiss (2018), Hancock et al. (2018), and Sullivan (2018) come from the analysis of nationally representative surveys in English-speaking countries, which is why they summarize the experiences of thousands of students with and without disabilities. Other studies have smaller samples, which may affect the transferability and generalizability of findings – for instance, Christani et al. (2015) were able to include only 62 disabled students in the sample, whereas Hong et al. (2019) summarized ten case studies, totaling only 11 participants with intellectual disabilities.
Other points that might limit the practical significance of the findings refer to the facts that the evidence comes from dissimilar cultures and the overall complexity of the issue of academic performance and attendance. The reviewed studies are based on data peculiar to school-age students in the United States, Australia, Japan, and small developing countries of Africa. Aside from potential intercultural differences, including society’s beliefs about childhood disability and the approaches to establishing special education systems, the mentioned countries’ economic situations define the availability of resources to support disabled students.
Next, the majority of the studies mention that absenteeism and truancy are more common among secondary students with disabilities (however, there is no agreement on the most affected disability subgroup) and that poor attendance (especially unexcused absences) leads to poor academic achievement and its negative long-term consequences. The findings indicate that disabled secondary students are different from non-disabled peers with no challenging health conditions since they are statistically more likely to have poorer attendance rates and face the performance-related consequences of absenteeism. At the same time, it cannot be said that the effect of attendance on academic performance is much stronger in disabled students – Garcia and Weiss (2018) and Christani et al. (2015) report the absence of significant differences in performance when comparing disabled and non-disabled students who have missed the same number of school days. At the same time, the size of academic performance losses is positively related to the number of absences (Garcia & Weiss, 2018). Considering trends in absenteeism rates, it puts disabled students in a disadvantaged position.
Speaking about the practical applications of the findings, the evidence of greater absenteeism among disabled secondary students highlights the need for effective absenteeism prevention practices aimed at children with different types of disabilities, including intellectual, developmental, learning, and severe emotional and behavioral disabilities. Given the evidence on some additional risk factors for absenteeism in disability, it might be practical to tailor such interventions to the needs of disabled students going to mainstream schools, those from low-income and incomplete families, the children of jobless parents, severely depressed children, and racial/ethnic minorities (Altiero, 2018; Black & Zablotsky, 2018; Garcia & Weiss, 2018). Unfortunately, being predominantly correlational, the reviewed works contain little information on approaches to absenteeism prevention that are effective in specific types of disabilities, which is why subsequent experimental research on the ways to improve disabled students’ attendance is absolutely necessary.
Nevertheless, some practice-oriented findings regarding attendance improvement in disabled students can be found in the reviewed literature and taken into account by educational institutions. For instance, based on the review by Hong et al. (2019), individual interventions that promote better school attendance in secondary students with intellectual and developmental disabilities include psychological support for parents, a solution-focused approach to psychoeducation, and play therapy. However, the best absenteeism prevention strategies for other types of disabilities and physically disabled students in mainstream schools remain a question to be researched more extensively in the future.
In summary, the reviewed studies demonstrate that student attendance is positively related to performance in both disabled and non-disabled secondary students. Additionally, having a disability of any type acts as a predictor of poorer attendance, which is why disabled students are more likely to have achievement gaps resulting from missing school days due to admissible excuses and truancy. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that missing a specific number of days is much more detrimental to the performance of a disabled student compared to that of a non-disabled student without chronic conditions. The findings demonstrate the utmost importance of developing and implementing support measures and truancy intervention programs that would consider the unique needs and issues of secondary students with disabilities.
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Black, L. I., & Zablotsky, B. (2018). Chronic school absenteeism among children with selected developmental disabilities: National Health Interview Survey, 2014-2016. National Health Statistics Reports, 118, 1-6.
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