Chronic absenteeism has risen dramatically in our country. A close look at 2021-22 school year data reveals that every state in the country is experiencing a substantial increase in the number of schools and districts with high and extreme levels chronic absenteeism.
Although attendance is typically considered a matter for local education agencies, the unprecedented levels and intensity of post-pandemic chronic absenteeism compels action from state education agencies (SEA) and policymakers. 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.
States don’t have to start from scratch. They can identify and build upon successful local efforts in their state. They can build upon or tailor successful approaches used in other states. Some states, for example, are making publically available chronic absence data from districts that enables everyone to identify patterns and trends that need solutions at scale. Others have attendance improvement plans in place or are offering evidence based interventions that can work to improve attendance following the pandemic.
Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins School of Education developed an interactive map showing district level chronic absence rates in every state. Use the map to scrutinize which districts are struggling with high and extreme chronic absence and identify successful efforts.
As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, addressing chronic absenteeism, missing 10% or more of school for any reason, is critical. Attending school on a regular basis is essential for student success on many levels: school offers opportunities to learn, forge relationships and develop social skills so necessary to engage with others inside and outside of class and eventually at work.
As such, chronic absence is a vital sign for assessing the health and academic well-being of individual students, student groups and even school communities. High levels of chronic absence reflect systemic challenges affecting large numbers of students and families that require programmatic and policy solutions.
As discussed in the first two data analyses in this series, nationwide data from the US Department of Education’s EdFacts revealed chronic absence nearly doubled, rising from 16% before the pandemic to nearly 30% by 2021-22 school year. In fact, 14.7 million students missed so much school they are at academic risk. While national data for 2022-23 has not been released, available state data shows chronic absence is starting to decline from its pandemic-impacted peak, but it remains at unprecedented levels.
This attendance crisis has a broad impact on learning, given that two-thirds (66%) of enrolled students attended a school with high (20-29% or extreme (30%+) levels of chronic absence. When chronic absence reaches high levels , the educational experience of peers, not just those frequently missing school, is also affected.
District level chronic absence rates are also highly elevated. Nationwide, the percent of districts with high or extreme levels of chronic absenteeism increased from 25% (4,044) to 63.1% (11,035). Click here to see data showing chronic absence levels for districts by state for 2021-22 and pre-pandemic (SY 2017-18).
Chronic absence is now more widespread and more concentrated than ever before. It is elevated and more intense in the places where chronic absence was a challenge before the pandemic, and now is a significant challenge in many schools that have never experienced such large numbers of chronically absent students.
Every state in the nation experienced a substantial increase in the number of schools with high and extreme levels of chronic absenteeism. Comparing data over time within a state is an excellent approach to understanding if attendance is improving. Comparing data across states is tricky. States often use different definitions of what constitutes a day of attendance.
Examining individual state data
We used the school year data to produce charts for every state showing levels of high and extreme chronic absence for schools as well as their demographics. Making such data publicly available is helpful for ensuring action and identifying if further steps must be taken to improve data quality.
If possible, we recommend states conduct their own analysis with 2022-23 school year data, since it is not yet available at the federal level. See this analysis from PACE of the 2022-23 school year data in California. This analysis only uses 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.
The solution: taking a comprehensive, data-informed approach
Although these numbers are challenging, the current high tide of absenteeism can be reduced when districts, with state support, help schools to take a comprehensive, data informed approach to improving attendance that is grounded in an understanding of local assets and root causes of chronic absence. Learn more in All Hands on Deck: Today’s Chronic Absenteeism Requires A Comprehensive District Response and Strategy.
What can states do?
States and SEAs are critical to ensuring districts are equipped to advance effective approaches to improving attendance in their schools, especially because today’s elevated levels of chronic absence can easily overwhelm a district’s capacity to respond. We recommend states adopt a tiered approach. States should offer basic resources to help all schools and districts, particularly those with limited experience addressing chronic absence. States should consider providing more intensive support to the districts facing the most significant attendance challenges.
We recommend the following actions for states when implementing a tiered approach:
- Publish comparable, timely and accurate data. Publicly available data helps everyone - educators, families, policy makers and potential community partners understand where action is needed. Public scrutiny also helps with data accuracy since people are likely to raise concerns if they notice data that appears to be inconsistent or inaccurate.
While reporting chronic absence data on state report cards is required by the federal government, the details of how that data is collected and reported are left to the discretion of SEAs. States can ensure comparable data among districts by providing a common definition for a day of attendance and ensuring all absences (excused, unexcused and suspensions) are included in their chronic absence data calculations. Recognizing the importance of timely data, many states are publishing prior year data as early as possible. A few – Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut –publish chronic absence data more frequently so action can be taken throughout the year.
- Create and promote messaging about the importance of attendance every day for student success and well-being. Such messaging is especially critical now since long periods of virtual learning may have led some families to think showing up in person to school no longer matters. After being told that students should stay home for any sign of illness during the pandemic, many families are unaware that such practices are no longer advisable. As illustrated in this health guidance co-released by Attendance Works, Kaiser Permanente and the National Association of School Nurses, students can still attend school even with a minor symptom such as a sniffle or mild stomach ache. State leaders –governors, state chief school officers, public health agency directors– as well as key policy makers and agencies can collaborate on messaging that can be tailored locally. Excellent examples of state campaigns include New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. More resources are available through our national Attendance Awareness Campaign which will soon be updated for 2024.
- Build capacity to address chronic absence. Ohio, for example, offers an online Attendance Guide that explains state law and offers early intervention practices. At the same time, with support from Attendance Works, the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce is strengthening the capacity of its staff and regional intermediaries to offer high quality technical assistance. Rather than creating a separate set of supports, Ohio is building on statewide investments in Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) so attendance improvement efforts augment existing resources.
SEA's can create training and professional development materials that districts and schools 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. Existing programs and initiatives such as family engagement, expanded learning, intensive tutoring, community schools, science of reading efforts and so on, can incorporate efforts designed to increase engagement and attendance. Chronic absence data can be used to identify which students, schools and districts receive these resources. Attendance data can also be used to determine if the program is reaching students and to inform continuous improvement.
Several states are adding attendance to ongoing efforts. Connecticut, for example, integrated attendance into family engagement strategies. The state used chronic absence data as a key criteria for determining which districts and schools benefited from their Learner Engagement and Attendance (LEAP) home visiting program. The California Department of Education offered webinars helping expanded learning programs understand why and how they can address chronic absence. Virginia’s campaign, ALL In VA, combines a dual focus on attendance and intensive tutoring
- Limit ineffective punitive responses. In general, research finds a punitive approach does not work because it does not address the underlying issues that cause students to miss school. Moreover it can alienate students and families, making it difficult to identify meaningful solutions. This is why there is a growing movement to limit punitive approaches and ensure that if they are used, it is only as a last resort. A large number of states have banned suspensions as a response to truancy. Texas in 2015 decriminalized truancy and required districts to provide behavior improvement plans, school-based community service or counseling referrals. Ohio in 2016 required districts to provide truancy intervention plans.
- Create a tailored action plan based on current data and existing resources. A key initial step for each state is to take stock of existing resources to understand strengths and gaps. What data, guidance or support are in place? What programming ( PBIS, MTSS, expanded learning, family engagement, early childhood programming, health supports, etc.) can be leveraged, and which entities are in place or could be equipped to build capacity among districts and schools? To determine where additional capacity is most needed, states can combine the results of such an inventory with data examining how much particular schools, districts and student groups are affected by chronic absence.
The pandemic-induced extreme levels of absenteeism are an urgent call to action for state education leaders and their partners to step up and make student attendance, engagement and well-being a top priority. Re-establishing a routine of regular attendance will require thoughtful and sustained planning and action. When all is said and done, we know that efforts to support student’s academic recovery –and improve learning and well-being outcomes for all students – are unlikely to have the desired results unless children and youth are present in school to benefit.
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. Interactive map developed by Daniel Princiotta, Assistant Research Scientist, Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University.