New look at federal attendance data shows need for increased state support

Every state is experiencing a significant increase in high and extreme levels of chronic absenteeism across schools and districts, according to a nationwide analysis of 2021–22 federal data released Jan. 31 by Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins’ Everyone Graduates Center.

About two-thirds of students attended a school with high or extreme levels of chronic absence in the 2021–22 school year, according to a corresponding Attendance Works’ analysis. When chronic absence reaches such high levels, the educational experience of all students — not just those frequently missing school — is also negatively affected.

Such “unprecedented levels and intensity of post-pandemic chronic absenteeism” should push state agencies and policymakers to act rather than forcing local educational agencies to solve this issue alone, wrote Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy Chang, and Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes of the Everyone Graduates Center. “State actions and resources can be used to build awareness of what chronic absence is and how to reduce it. They can advance and sustain district and local action designed to improve attendance and engagement.”

High levels of chronic absence — missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason — reflect systemic challenges affecting large numbers of students and families that require programmatic and policy solutions.

Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center produced charts for every state showing levels of high and extreme chronic absence for schools as well as their demographics, but recommended states conduct their own analysis with 2022–23 school year data, since it is not yet available at the federal level. If data inconsistencies are found it offers states an opportunity to improve the data quality, they noted.

The analysis included one such example: an examination of chronic absenteeism from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) using 2022–23 school year data published by the California Department of Education “to make comparisons with prior years to ensure consistency given some differences between their state attendance accounting practices and the federal government.”

Released in January, the PACE analysis contains seven key findings, including:

  • Rates of chronic absence in 2022–23, while down from the prior year (25 percent in 2022–23 compared to 30 percent in 2021–22), remain well above pre-pandemic levels
  • The percentage of schools with high (20–29 percent of students) and extreme (30 percent or more of students) levels of chronic absence more than tripled during the pandemic
  • Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of elementary schools experiencing high and extreme levels of chronic absence has increased dramatically (driven in part by especially high levels of chronic absence in kindergarten)

The Attendance Works analysis noted the important role state policymakers and education agencies play in ensuring districts are equipped to advance effective approaches to improving attendance in their schools. The analysis calls on states to adopt a tiered approach, and recommends state leaders take the following actions:

  • Publish comparable, timely and accurate data that is publicly available and easy to understand.
  • Create and promote messaging about the importance of attendance every day for student success and well-being.
  • Build capacity to address chronic absence by creating training and professional development materials LEAs can use to build staff capacity to enact high-leverage, evidence-based approaches to reducing chronic absenteeism like family engagement, student connectedness, addressing health and safety issues, expanding community partnerships and student success systems.
  • Integrate attention to chronic absence into existing initiatives such as family engagement, expanded learning, intensive tutoring, community schools, science of reading efforts and more.
  • Limit ineffective punitive responses to poor attendance, opting instead to address the underlying issues that cause students to miss school.
  • Create a tailored action plan based on current data and existing resources.