Being able to answer this question is more important than ever. A new analysis of national chronic absence data for the 2019-20 and 2018-19 school years shows that answering this question in a timely manner is not so easy, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
National chronic absence data helps everyone to understand the scale, scope and concentration of the attendance challenge before us. It allows us to identify the need to address challenges or the needs of particular populations that cut across district or state lines. It makes it more possible to set realistic expectations for school and district improvements by creating a context for interpreting local and state data.
While attendance data is taken daily in schools, most state departments of education do not typically collect that information from districts until the summer after the end of a school year. States submit the data to EDFacts, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) initiative, in the winter of the following school year. The ED typically releases the data nearly two years after it was collected at the local level.
What Does the New Data Show?
Covid-19 has made examining national data even more complicated. In early 2022, ED released the most recent chronic absence data available, for school year 2018-19 and school year 2019-20, through the Ed Data Express website. Unlike prior releases, this data only included information by district, not school.
A new analysis of this current data, conducted by Vaughn Byrnes of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education (JHU), shows that in the 2018-19 school year, 8,134,720 students were chronically absent (defined as missing 10% or more of the school year.) This level of absenteeism seems realistic. It is a slight increase from the previous school year (2017-18), during which 8, 051,239 students were reported as chronically absent.
By contrast, the JHU analysis reveals the EDFacts data for school year 2019-20 is seriously flawed and shows only 6,020,446 students were chronically absent. Although we know from experience, parent surveys and news reports that more students were missing class during the onset of the pandemic, the school year 2019-20 data show over 2 million fewer students were reported as chronically absent than in the prior school year.
One factor contributing to this drop in students reported as being chronically absent could be that California, which has the largest student population of any state, did not submit data to EDFacts because it was unable to secure reliable data from its school districts. But that is not the only cause of under-reporting: A full two-thirds of all states (33) reported a decrease in the number of chronically absent students. The unexpected onset of distance learning meant there was little guidance about how and when to take attendance in spring 2020. As few as 27% of districts continued taking attendance when school buildings closed and learning shifted to remote learning, according to research by the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Attendance-taking and expectations were less likely in lower-income and rural districts.
While the lack of accurate national data is disappointing, we applaud ED for releasing it to the public. This data reveals that even more attention must be paid to ensuring attendance data is collected in a consistent and timely manner at the local level, and that states are equipped to support the collection of high quality and meaningful data.
The good news is that our review of state-level attendance policy, Are Students Present and Accounted For? An Examination of State Attendance Policies During the Covid-19 Pandemic, found that the majority of states reinstated daily attendance during the 2020-21 school year. Meaningful definitions for what constituted attendance during distance learning, however, remained a work in progress. Stay tuned for the latest information about how well states are monitoring and publishing chronic absence data when we release an updated review of state policy in June.
Chronic absence data is valuable because it is like a canary in a coal mine. It helps alert schools, districts and community partners when an individual student or groups of students have missed so much school that they are at risk of falling behind, so they can engage in prevention and early intervention. When chronic absence occurs, it is a sign of possible challenges outside and inside schools (e.g. unstable housing, unreliable transportation, disengaging educational experiences, bullying) that not only cause absences but also affect children’s ability to learn overall if they are left unaddressed.
Accurate and timely data is essential to ensuring all students have an equal opportunity to learn. We must invest now in data systems and practices so we are able to establish a new and meaningful baseline to inform the allocation of resources and monitor progress over time.
We thank Vaughn Byrnes, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, for the analysis of data from the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.