Data

‘Extreme’ Chronic Absenteeism? Pandemic School Attendance Data Is Bleak, But Incomplete

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 14, 2021 4 min read
Image of an empty desk.

At the time it’s most needed, high-quality, comparable data on rates of student absenteeism have gone missing.

The reason? No one forced states to prioritize the information during the pandemic.

The lack of data matters in part because re-engaging families and students is much harder when districts don’t know the size of the problem. And mountains of research connect chronic absenteeism to lower academic results, reduced emotional engagement, and a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school. Plus, districts have a flood of federal cash to spend to rectify the impacts of the pandemic on schooling, including students who missed school because they were caring for siblings, working, or temporarily unhoused.

With no data, policymakers won’t know where or how to spend that money.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, 36 states and the District of Columbia selected chronic absenteeism as an indicator in their accountability systems. And all of them report data on absenteeism to the feds for research purposes.

But only nine states included data on chronic absenteeism from 2019-20 on their school report cards, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for the dissemination of data to improve student outcomes.

It’s an oversight that infuriates Paige Kowalski, the DQC’s executive vice president. States could have reported out their figures through that March, or used that data to project an estimate for the end of the 2019-20 school year. But they didn’t, and the U.S. Department of Education didn’t require them to.

“It’s unacceptable,” she said. “What I worry about just having lived life and seen how this plays out is that the kids who need the resources most to come back to school will struggle to get them.”

What do we know about absenteeism during the pandemic?

What all this means is that the country is further behind where it could be in assessing the scope of chronic absenteeism, generally defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year.

Using very rough methods, one consulting firm estimated that as many as 3 million students might have stopped attending schools during the pandemic.

Some newer research findings are equally bleak.

The company EveryDay Labs, which works with districts to improve attendance, analyzed data from five unnamed city districts and found that not only did absenteeism increase dramatically, particularly in the elementary grades, it also rose in the number of students who missed half the school year—a time block so large that the organization had to come up with a new name of it: extreme chronic absenteeism.

“Despite the fact that most states put into place looser policies during remote learning for attendance, absenteeism was exacerbated,” said Emily Bailard, the company’s CEO.

Connecticut was one of the few states that has invested significant time and energy in maintaining comparable absenteeism data.

It gave guidance to districts on how to code absenteeism during the pandemic. Generally, it said districts should count a student as present if the time a student spent in synchronous classes, logged onto a learning platform, or completing an assignment equalled about half the day. The state also issued monthly updates comparing attendance in 2020-21 to the prior year.

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Based on its information, the nonprofit Attendance Works developed an early picture of attendance trends in Connecticut over the 2020-21 school year. Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year increased from about 12 percent to 20 percent statewide.

Taken as a whole, absenteeism was most prevalent among students who attended all-remote schooling compared with those attended in another learning format. For some groups of students, including those receiving free and reduced-price lunches, English-learners, and students with disabilities, more than a third of students were chronically absent in the fall semester.

Even across formats, there were significant differences, however.

For example, Black and Hispanic students attending elementary school in a hybrid format had lower rates of chronic absenteeism than did remote students in elementary schools. But beginning in 6th grade, this pattern reversed, yielding intriguing new questions about whether the remote format might offer benefits particularly at the lower secondary grades.

New conditions as part of testing flexibility

The Biden administration is beginning to reverse course as it starts to enforce some of the key tenets of ESSA. One of the conditions for receiving testing flexibility for the 2020-21 school year is that states make available any absenteeism data they have. (That data should come out later this fall.)

Just how to interpret it, though, will be anyone’s best guess, given that most states did not issue guidance as specific as Connecticut’s on how to determine attendance in remote settings. Some districts required students to log on to remote classes just once; others required it for every class. For still others, students needed to interact with teachers or submit an assignment to be counted as present.

And without comparable testing data, it will be harder to estimate in what content areas students will need the most support.

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