The high cost of truancy

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Resisting authority may be some teenagers’ sport of preference, but they’re hobbling themselves if they think that skipping school is cool. Results from PISA 2012 show that playing truant is related to significantly poorer performance in mathematics, which has repercussions on students’ futures, and on the performance of their school and school system. But all parents and teachers have the means to reduce the incidence of truancy.

This month’s PISA in Focus examines the cost of student truancy. Across OECD countries, 18% of students skipped at least one class and 15% skipped at least an entire day of school without authorisation in the two weeks prior to the PISA test. On average across OECD countries, skipping classes is associated with a 32-point lower score in mathematics and skipping days of school is associated with a 52-point lower score. In Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei, the score-point difference associated with having skipped classes is larger than 80 points, and in Hungary, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Shanghai-China and Chinese Taipei, the score-point difference associated with having skipped days of school is also larger than 80-score points.

Schools, too, pay for truancy in the form of poorer performance. In Croatia, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovenia, Chinese Taipei and Viet Nam, a 10 percentage-point increase in the proportion of students who skip classes or days of school corresponds to a decline in the school’s average mathematics performance of between 10 and 34 score points, after accounting for the socio-economic status and demographic background of students and schools and various other school characteristics.

And student truancy is negatively related to a school system’s overall performance. Among OECD countries, after accounting for per capita GDP, school systems with larger percentages of students who play truant tend to score lower in mathematics. After accounting for differences in the level of economic development, measured by per capita GDP, 16% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by differences in the proportions of students who skip school. By contrast, in most high-performing school systems, such as Hong Kong-China, Japan, Korea and Shanghai-China, virtually no student skips classes or days of school.

In most countries, there is very little difference in the incidence of truancy between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Across OECD countries, for example, 19% of disadvantaged students reported that they had skipped classes, compared with 17% of advantaged students, on average; and 18% of disadvantaged students reported that they had skipped days of school, compared with 12% of advantaged students. That means that the problem of truancy cuts across all types of families and schools – and so does the solution.

In 8 of the 11 countries and economies with available data, students whose parents regularly eat the main meal with them are less likely to have skipped classes or days of school. And students who reported that they have good relations with their teachers are five percentage points less likely to have arrived late for school, on average across OECD countries, and four percentage points less likely to have skipped classes or days of school during the two weeks prior to the PISA test. In other words: parents and teachers can nurture student engagement with and at school – and by doing so, discourage students’ impulse to skip school – by being more engaged themselves with their children and students.

PISA in Focus No. 35: Who are the school truants?
PISA 2012 results
Ready to Learn: Students’ Engagement, Drive and Self-Beliefs (Volume III)
What Makes Schools Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV)

Photo credit: Erasing desk  / @Shutterstock

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