Chronic absenteeism in schools doubles since before pandemic, dragging down test scores

Chronic absenteeism among U.S. students has nearly doubled since before the pandemic, and experts fear plummeting test scores and soaring learning loss will be impossible to correct without fixing it.

New data released on the Return 2 Learn Tracker from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) shows chronic absenteeism, defined as students missing more than 10 percent of the school year, went from 15 percent in 2018 to 29 percent in 2022.

The problem is particularly prominent in districts that already have a history of trouble with student success, such as low-achieving schools, ones with high poverty rates and districts with a high minority population.

“We’re able to see that there are really big increases, much larger increases in traditionally disadvantaged districts,” said Nat Malkus, senior fellow and deputy director of the Education Policy Studies at AEI, who worked on the tracker.

Between 2018 and 2022, there was a 17 percentage point jump in chronic absenteeism among low-achieving districts compared to only 10 points in high-achieving ones, according to the tracker. In high-poverty districts, chronic absenteeism jumped 16 percentage points compared to 11 points in low-poverty schools.

Meanwhile, students are already struggling to get their academic results up, and missing more school will only exacerbate the problem. The latest numbers on academic progress from the Nation’s Report Card show students are decades behind in reading and math since the pandemic.

Among the states with the biggest rises is Wyoming at 35 points, according to the tracker. Arizona, Vermont and New Mexico had increases of 23 percentage points.

Chronic absenteeism has become such an extensive problem the White House released a statement last month outlining its concerns and steps officials are taking.

“Ultimately, whether chronic absenteeism is a symptom or a cause — or both — of ongoing academic disruption, the evidence is clear that the road to recovery runs through the classroom,” the Biden administration said.

The data from the Return 2 Learn Tracker also looked at the relationship between coronavirus policies and the uptick in absenteeism.

In school districts with high masking during the 2021-2022 school year, there was a 17 percentage point increase in chronic absenteeism compared to a 13 point one in low-masking schools. Similarly, schools that went mostly remote in the 2020-2021 school year have a 16 percentage point rise compared to 12 points in schools that were mostly in person.

“What happened during COVID was obviously, like, we as adults questioned our work-life balance after having things slow down and maybe being with our friends and family more. Kids, […] they began questioning their school life balance. I think that’s a lot of it,” said Jayne Demsky, founder of the School Avoidance Alliance. “But also there was a huge mental health crisis before COVID, and post COVID has made it even worse.”

Getting students back on track requires cooperation from both children and their parents to rectify the issue.

Malkus said one part is making sure parents know when to keep children home for sickness emphasizing not getting “overly cautious” in the matter. The other part is beating the bad habits that could have developed during COVID-19.

“We need to both make it clear to parents that it is good for their kids to be in school regularly and consistently and that they need to make that happen and to remind them that they have a legal obligation to send their kids to school,” Malkus said. “It’s not OK to have a cavalier attitude towards school attendance, because it affects their students but it also affects the schools that the kids go to.”

One Title I elementary school in Greensboro, N.C., has bucked the trend and was able to get a 30 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism from the 2021-2022 school year to the 2022-2023 school year.

“We noticed a lot of our students that were being out a lot — so chronic, absentee students in our school — there were a lot of health concerns, a lot of health issues, doctor’s appointments,” said Johnathan Brooks, the principal at Bessemer Elementary School.

Brooks noted his school has a high percentage of students in single-parent households, as well as being in one of the lowest income and highest crime rates in the area.

He said what changed the game for his school was telehealth services that allowed students to see a health care professional in school and avoided parents having to take their children out of school for minor issues.

The school launched its telehealth services in the 2021-2022 school year in partnership between the Guilford County Schools District and Cone Health.

Brooks said the school has already seen academic improvements as the telehealth program became popular and chronic absenteeism dropped, gauging the improvement from subject-level testing the school gives students.

He said “100 percent” of students who tested and are part of the telehealth program “demonstrated they have at least met appropriate or exceeded academic growth standards.”

“We were extremely happy to see that, and we know that it’s not a coincidence. You can’t learn if you’re not on campus or if you don’t feel your best when you’re here,” he said.

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