Past chronic absence data can help identify students most in danger of falling behind during pandemic

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, one out of six children — or 8 million U.S. students — experienced some level of chronic absenteeism,  according to an analysis of the most recent federal data. Those with the most absences are also in the groups hardest hit during the pandemic by poor health, economic hardship and unequal access to learning.

The Using Chronic Absence to Map Interrupted Schooling, Instructional Loss and Educational Inequity: Insights from School Year 2017–18 Data report, released Feb. 2 by Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center, shows chronic absence data reported prior to the pandemic can help guide strategies to address the learning loss that has been further exacerbated by COVID-19 and distance learning. The researchers used national attendance data to analyze which student groups, schools and districts are likely to need additional support to recover from the effects of the pandemic. The project also includes an interactive map that shows the districts and schools most affected by chronic absence — defined as missing 10 percent of the school year.

Data is available on the national and state level. California’s student chronic absence rate in 2017–18 was 13.3 percent, representing 821,952 students, which makes it 39th highest in the nation.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Chronic absence is pervasive in a quarter of U.S. schools. Twenty-seven percent of the nation’s schools have either high (20–29 percent) or extreme (30 percent or more) levels of chronic absenteeism. Absenteeism levels that are this high negatively impact the whole school, including students who attend regularly.
  • Chronic absenteeism can affect students of all ages. Twenty percent or more of students are chronically absent in almost one in five elementary schools. Half of all high schools have either extreme or high rates of chronic absenteeism.
  • Poverty combined with residential segregation results in high chronic absenteeism rates in four out of 10 schools that predominantly educate students of color. In all, 41 percent of schools with 75 percent or more students of color have high or extreme rates of chronic absenteeism, compared with 17 percent of schools that have 75 percent or more white students.

Recommendations for action include:

  • Build awareness of what chronic absence is and why addressing it matters for ensuring an equal opportunity to learn. Help families understand that chronic absence occurs when students miss too much school for any reason — including excused absences — and results in students falling behind academically.
  • Promote collection of accurate and consistent attendance data that is taken daily. During the 2020–21 school year, attendance is not necessarily being taken on a daily basis and what constitutes attendance varies significantly between and within states. The report recommends that states require taking attendance daily across all modes of instruction and to establish a robust and consistent measure of attendance in the next year.
  • Review data to identify trends, bright spots and unmet needs that require additional resources. Identify who is most affected by chronic absence and reach out through interviews, surveys and/or focus groups to assess how attendance is being increased.
  • Engage students, families and communities in developing effective approaches to addressing pre-pandemic and current barriers to attendance through planning and implementation of learning loss recovery efforts.
  • Address inequities in attendance based on race, disability status and poverty. Chronic absence data consistently demonstrates that certain student populations are more likely to be chronically absent than the national average. Students who have historically and currently experience racial oppression, disability bias and lack of access to investment and opportunity are the same students who are disproportionately more likely to miss school. It is extremely important not to frame chronic absence through a punitive framework. Instead, local educational agencies should invest in strategies that reduce barriers to attendance such as community schools, expanded opportunities that provide engaging and enriching programming, and providing professional development to improve staff capacity to deliver racially conscious and culturally relevant pedagogy.
  • Promote interagency collaboration and coordination. The community school model epitomizes the benefits of interagency collaboration and coordination across departments at the local, state and federal level, including those agencies that focus at least in part on the education, health, rights and work-force readiness of young people and their families.

 Read the full report »