A Quick Word with Jessica Heppen on Using Texting to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism in Schools

When school takes place fully in-person, chronic absenteeism is a persistent problem. Nearly eight million students a year are chronically absent, half of them in the elementary grades. Typically defined as missing 10% or more of school days in a given year or time period, chronic absenteeism is associated with lower reading and math achievement—even in the early grades—as well as higher absenteeism in middle and high school. Students who are chronically absent in middle and high school are at higher risk of dropping out, as well as negative outcomes later in life, like substance use.

In a study for the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, AIR evaluated the effects of an adaptive text messaging intervention on chronic absenteeism. Using a Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART) study design, AIR researchers randomly assigned over 20,000 elementary school students from 108 schools to either a messaging group, where parents and guardians were sent attendance-related text messages, or a control group that received no messages. Initial messages included basic information, and messaging intensified if students continued to be absent.

Below, Jessica Heppen, a senior vice president at AIR, tells us more about the study, including what her team learned about the effectiveness of the intervention and implications for educators, parents, and students.

Q: What was the purpose of the study and what did you hope to learn?

Heppen: The purpose of the study was to examine the effectiveness of messaging parents as a means to improve attendance for elementary school children. We hoped to learn about the impact of different approaches to text messaging about attendance, to inform district strategies for reducing chronic absence in the future.

To develop the messaging strategy, we used the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skill Model from the public health field. We then developed the messaging to be sent out via text.

Parents in the messaging group were sent basic text messaging beginning in the fall. This included weekly texts that emphasized the importance of attendance, tips to avoid common reasons for absences, and links to additional resources. Basic messaging also included same-day notifications when a child was absent. These messages were framed either in terms of the positive benefits of regular attendance, or the negative consequences of absenteeism.

During the spring semester, parents in the messaging group whose students still had a relatively large number of absences in the fall despite basic messaging received one of two types of additional messaging. The first type came from school staff, offering direct help and information to parents. The second type asked parents to commit to perfect attendance weeks for their students, and included additional options for getting more tailored tips and resources. In both cases, these parents continued to receive basic messaging. With two types of basic messaging (benefits and consequences framed) and two types of intensified messages (school staff outreach and goal commitment messaging) the study examined four versions of an adaptive text messaging strategy. All told, 800,000 text messages were sent out to parents across the course of the study.

Infographic: Adaptive Text Messaging Reduced Chronic Absence

Q: How did the texting messaging intervention affect absenteeism and student outcomes?

Heppen: The four versions of messaging all reduced the expected chronic absence rate of 20.5%, by 2.5 to 3.6 percentage points, and the reduction was even greater for students with a prior history of high absences. For those students, the messaging reduced their expected absence rate of 47.1% by 3.5 to 7.3 percentage points. These are quite large reductions.

We also found that the two types of basic messaging were both effective. That is, emphasizing the positive benefits of regular attendance was just as effective as emphasizing the negative consequences.

For students with a prior history of high absences, intensified messaging to parents reduced chronic absence more than basic messaging alone. And, for these students, messages from school staff were more effective than messages that encouraged setting goals for perfect attendance.

The study also looked at student achievement. We found that none of the interventions had a measurable effect on either reading or math achievement.

Q: How does the texting intervention compare to other absenteeism interventions?

Technical Considerations for Text Messaging

For AIR’s study, a text messaging vendor sent messages to parents. Delivering the messages required daily attendance data and contact information, meaning that districts participating in the study needed a student information system that could send updated attendance information daily directly to the text messaging platform. Except for messaging sent directly by school staff, there was no burden on the schools for providing data or sending messages. AIR is working on a how-to guide for districts that will clarify the steps to set up a flexible text messaging system that can send both pre-scheduled messages as well as same-day notifications in response to daily attendance data.

Heppen: Some programs focused on attendance are far more costly, because they require more time for school personnel or other staff to work with individual students. This makes them difficult to scale and out of reach for some districts. The texting intervention we studied is more cost-effective. The per-student cost for the messaging strategies ranged from about $7 to $8.50 for the full year, while some other types of attendance interventions cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per student.

Messaging interventions involving postcards and mailers have been shown to reduce chronic absence at a similar cost as the text messaging intervention we studied. However, the reductions in chronic absence observed in this study were larger than those seen in studies of postcards and mailers. This may be because texting can reach parents immediately, and people tend to read texts within minutes after receiving them. Adding intensified messaging may have boosted the impact of the texting intervention we studied.

Texting parents about attendance had been studied previously at the high school level, in New York City. As with the studies of postcards and mailers, the study used a strong design and was well conducted. Their messaging approach was similar in some ways to ours, such as providing same-day notifications when a student was marked absent. But it found no measurable impact on attendance after one semester. More research is clearly needed to better understand potential differences in duration, context, grade levels, messaging content, and other factors.­­

Q: What are some key takeaways for educators and policymakers who are concerned about reducing chronic absenteeism?

Heppen: In addition to being notably effective for reducing chronic absence within one school year, the study also showed that texting parents daily about attendance on a large scale is feasible and not off-putting to parents. Parents were able to unsubscribe from messaging at any time, but overall, nearly 90% of students in the messaging groups had at least one parent who received messages for the full year.

This study was the first of its kind to examine an adaptive approach to communicating with parents about elementary school students’ attendance. Of course, school attendance and chronic absence now need to be reconceptualized and monitored in new ways as districts adjust and adapt instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, texting could potentially be an effective means for districts to communicate with parents about attendance and participation in school activities—whether in-person, fully online, or blended. Our hope is that future research will help districts maximize the potential of texting to combat chronic absence for as many students as possible.