For the third year in a row, Baltimore's scores on state tests show a double-digit achievement gap between chronically absent students and their peers who attend school regularly, and the system's recent spike in suspensions has created a similar disparity.

In releasing the Maryland School Assessment results last week, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso identified the widening gap between students who are chronically absent — meaning they miss more than 20 days a year — and those who attend school regularly as a crucial barrier to the system's overall achievement.

"Nothing is more important than this," he said. "[We] still have not figured out how to communicate how important it is for kids to be in school."

This year, 10 percent of elementary school students were chronically absent, and 14 percent of middle school students were. While the number of chronically absent students in tested grades declined from 2011, the achievement gap widened, according to school system data.

The gap between students who attended school regularly and those who were chronically absent was 22 percentage points in math, up from 18 points in 2011. Students with repeated absences fell behind 17 points in reading, up from 14, according to district data presented this week.

Advocates who have partnered with the school system to tackle chronic absence, truancy and dropout prevention said the data illustrate a longstanding barrier to achievement in the city.

"It makes a difference for the whole school when the students are not there," said Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, an organization that has launched various efforts with the school system to raise attendance, achievement and graduation rates.

Morris added that chronic absences can be a symptom of various circumstances, such as asthma or lack of transportation, and school communities have to continue to advocate for resources that improve poor attendance, such as funding for health clinics.

Alonso also said that educators are beginning to slip back into old ways when it comes to suspensions. The system's suspensions have risen in the last two years, he said, reversing a trend that had cut the number of students who were being suspended eight years ago, 26,000, in half.

The system's push to use suspensions as a last resort — a trademark of the schools chief's administration — has drawn push-back from schools that feel the system's reluctance to suspend students contributes negatively to a school's climate, Alonso said.

"Sometimes schools feel that they're making it easier for others to learn by clearing out kids," said Alonso, who vehemently objects to that notion.

The system's analysis shows a 33 percentage point gap in math and a 25 percentage point gap in reading between students who have never been suspended and those who had been suspended more than twice. For students who had been suspended once, the gaps were also in the 20 percentage point range.

"Teachers should not feel like they're being blamed for this," Morris said. "There are conflicts that arise, there are going to be children who have not had the kind of direction from adults that they need to get. In some cases, teachers need help with classroom management and training in how not to escalate a situation."

erica.green@baltsun.com