Using chronic absence data to create change

Considered an early warning sign of academic risk for all grade levels, chronic absence is plaguing schools in California and across the nation. 

In the Golden State, ensuring students are in class is particularly important not only for optimal student outcomes but because local educational agencies receive funding based on average daily attendance. 

The new brief “Seize the Data: Using Chronic Absence Data to Drive Student Engagement,” a joint publication of CSBA and Attendance Works released in March, provides an overview of chronic absenteeism in California and information on the student groups it impacts most as well as questions that board members can consider when assessing the issue, ways to address it and related resources. 

“Chronic absenteeism is not returning to pre-pandemic levels as quickly as we would hope. This carries a whole range of negative consequences for students that extend beyond just academic achievement,” said CSBA Principal Research Manager Jeremy Anderson, one of the brief’s authors. “We want board members to know they play a critical role in engaging with their LEA communities to encourage attendance and make students feel like they want to return to the classroom.”  


Chronic absence, defined as missing 10 percent or more of instructional days for any reason (excused or unexcused absences and/or due to suspension), can affect student achievement and school finances. High rates of chronic absence can hinder student outcomes, well-being and graduation rates; hamper learning recovery efforts; widen opportunity gaps; lower district funding; and decrease enrollment, according to the brief. 

During the 2022–23 academic year, 25 percent of students — roughly 1.5 million young people — were chronically absent after peaking at 30 percent the year prior, according to data from the California Department of Education. Many state’s rates of chronic absence continue to be higher than they were pre-pandemic. 

“The 2022–23 data reveals an attendance crisis that must be addressed to help students recover from the negative impacts of the pandemic on their mental and physical health as well as their academic progress,” the brief reads.  

California has poured billions of relief dollars into learning recovery efforts allowing schools to offer programming like expanded learning opportunities and tutoring, but students must show up in order to benefit from the additional supports. 

“Learning recovery has been one of the top priorities of LEAs post-pandemic, but all of the investments and programming that an LEA can provide are not going to be effective if students are not coming to school,” Anderson explained. “We also know that chronic absenteeism disproportionately impacts historically marginalized student groups. These two factors together threaten to widen gaps in student outcomes.”  

The brief notes that chronic absence can be an indicator that students and families are not engaged and may leave a school system in favor of alternative education options like private or home school. 

Overall, utilizing disaggregated data to understand the student groups most impacted by chronic absence can help LEA leaders tailor their strategies to improve attendance.   

In California, data show that Hispanic/Latino, white and African American students are the ethnic groups most commonly chronically absent.  

Socioeconomically disadvantaged and English learner students as well as those with disabilities are the student groups with the highest rates of chronic absence. “While youth in foster care and those experiencing homelessness are a much smaller percentage of the total number of students who are chronically absent, they are the most affected and have extremely high rates of chronic absence,” according to the brief. 

By grade level, kindergartners and high schoolers missed the most school. 

Gaining understanding 

To reduce chronic absenteeism, LEAs must understand the reasons why students miss school and find ways to boost engagement and buy-in — like improving school climate or reconsidering attendance and discipline policies. 

When large numbers of students are consistently absent, it is typically a sign of districtwide challenges that require systemic and programmatic solutions and support from community partners, the brief explains. 

Board of education teams should access their LEA’s chronic absence data, which can be combined with data on physical and mental health and economic and social well-being, to provide a comprehensive picture of students’ realities. Surveys, focus groups or other qualitative methods can be used to collect insights from families. 

The brief outlines seven guiding steps that trustees can take to reduce chronic absence: 

  1. Get the data
  2. Understand the makeup of chronically absent student group
  3. Identify root causes and solutions
  4. Use data to invest in relationship building and engagement
  5. Promote equitable, problem-solving attendance practices
  6. Take an intradistrict team approach
  7. Plan funding for the long haul 

Relevant CSBA sample policies, a list of federal and state funding sources that can be used to address chronic absenteeism and additional resources are included in the brief. 

“Governance teams can make a huge difference in improving attendance and making students feel supported,” Anderson said. “Their role in setting the priorities of an LEA given them a unique position to get the whole LEA in on a mindset to actively partner with families on attendance. This brief gives them steps and resources to achieve that goal so that all students are getting the education they deserve.”