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The latest national data available from the U.S. Department of Education shows at least 10.1 million students were chronically absent during the first full year of the Covid-19 pandemic. This data, collected for the 2020-21 school year, is a substantial increase from the approximately 8 million students chronically absent in the prior years.

Chronic absence continued to surge during the next school year. Although national data has not yet been released for the 2021-22 school year, data already available from several states – Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and California – show rates doubled from those prior to the pandemic. Given the diversity of these states, this offers evidence that chronic absence has at least doubled to an estimated 16 million, or one out of three students nationwide.

Absences contribute to lower achievement

This alarming increase in chronic absence has been occurring in tandem with significant declines in reading and math scores. Long term trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed the largest drop in decades: 9-year-old students scored 5 points lower in reading and 7 points lower in mathematics compared to peers in 2020.

The NAEP release also shows that the students with the lowest scores reported challenges that create barriers to regularly showing up to school in virtual or hybrid settings. They had less access to a computer, the internet, a quiet place to work, daily support from a teacher and homework help. If students lack the ability to access learning opportunities online, as well as assistance from school staff, they are more likely to fall behind academically, making it more difficult to show up when it is possible to return in person to class.

The high levels of chronic absenteeism and new NAEP scores add to the existing body of research showing the adverse impact of chronic absence on achievement, student well-being and graduation rates. When combined, the two vividly illustrate the urgent need to invest in comprehensive efforts to ensure all students attend school regularly, especially those with the least access to equitable opportunities to learn.

The Department of Education’s latest chronic absence data release represents progress in making this data available for states and districts nationwide on an annual basis. Yet, a closer review of the data over time and across states shows more attention to data quality is needed at multiple levels.

Most recent data suggests an undercount

A review of national chronic absence data from the 2016-17 through 2020-21 school years suggests that the 10.1 million students identified as chronically absent in 2020-21 is an undercount. During 2019-20, the first year of the pandemic, the number of chronically absent students decreased in almost every state and for the country as a whole. This unlikely outcome very probably reflects the fact that most districts stopped taking daily attendance once school buildings closed.

Unfortunately, data accuracy continues to be a concern, especially in school year 2020-21, when distance or hybrid learning was common. A comparison of data across years by state data shows, for example, that chronic absenteeism decreased in five states – a highly dubious result. Research by Attendance Works found that in 2020-21, some states still did not require daily attendance taking. Equally problematic, what constituted showing up for distance or virtual learning varied widely with many states leaving definitions to local discretion.

The Department of Education acknowledged these issues in its warning posted along with the current data release: “The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the collection and reporting of data on EDE [ED Data Express], beginning in SY 2019-20. The Department urges abundant caution when using the data and recommends reviewing the relevant data notes prior to use or interpretation. This includes data on state assessments, graduation rates, and chronic absenteeism.”

A call to invest in data quality

The good news is that this publicly released data is also an opportunity to improve the quality of chronic absence data. States can use the data from 2016-17 through 2020-21, as well as their own data, to examine for inconsistencies and unlikely results, and then take time to unpack what happened. When doing this analysis, states can ask:

● Is there a need for a more standard definition of a day of attendance?
● Does attendance need to be taken more frequently?
● Do school staff need professional development about data definitions and attendance taking practices?

The state of Connecticut, for example, has advanced the quality of its data by offering a standard definition of day of attendance for virtual and in person attendance, collecting and reporting data monthly (allowing for ongoing and public review of the quality of data) and requiring reporting by mode of instruction. The state’s data also reflects trends that we would anticipate based upon what was happening during the pandemic – an increase in chronic absence in the 2020-21 school year, and an even larger increase the following year (2021-22).

Accurate data matters because it allows states to determine which schools, districts, regions or student populations would benefit from additional supports that address lost instructional time, as well as mine data for successes that should be shared and replicated. When states push for improved data quality, it helps to increase accuracy at the local level. Accurate local data is essential to timely early intervention and co-creating meaningful solutions with students, families and community partners.

By Hedy Chang, Executive Director, Attendance Works; Robert Balfanz, Director, Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University; and Vaughan Byrnes, Senior Research Associate, Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University.

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