Meeting the Chronic Absenteeism Challenge What Do We Know?

Everyone Graduates on X: "Meeting the Chronic Absenteeism Challenge - What Do  We Know? A new report by @bobbalfanz, @GRADpartners, @nps_success, &  @JHU_EGC covers what we know about district & school challenges

Robert Balfanz Everyone Graduates Center, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University

This brief aims to provide a synthesis of what we know about the district and school challenges of post-pandemic chronic absenteeism, and what can be done to meet them. It further analyzes existing federal and state data on chronic absenteeism, shows variation across states on key metrics, and examines the evidence-base on what has proven effective in reducing it.

By now, most of us are aware that chronic absenteeism rates doubled post-pandemic. The multiplicity of personal, health, social, economic, and educational disruptions caused by the pandemic made it harder for millions of students to be in school every day, even as the direct health impact of Covid-19 receded.

But what does a doubling of the number of students who are missing a month or more of schooling in the school year mean? What do the numbers tell us about the challenges our schools and communities face, and what does the evidence base say about the types of solutions and responses that are needed to meet them?

It’s a big problem.

With close to 15 million students chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year, two-thirds of the K-12 students in the US were attending a school where at least twenty percent of the student body was chronically absent. This is problematic because research has shown that when a school’s chronic absenteeism rates are at these levels, the whole student body can be impacted. Not only are a fifth or more of students experiencing interrupted schooling, but the instructional pace of the whole school is interrupted when teachers constantly have a shifting set of students in their classrooms. If they slow down to catch up the students who were absent the prior day, they lose the attention of the students who were there. If they keep moving ahead, the students who were absent feel lost, and can demand additional attention. Given the unprecedented number of schools with chronic absenteeism rates of twenty percent or more in 2021-22, we need to understand that the pandemic has caused two plus years of interrupted learning in most locations.

High rates of chronic absenteeism spread to districts that had not experienced it before.

Prior to the pandemic, chronic absenteeism was a significant challenge, and its impact was heavily concentrated in schools serving students from high poverty neighborhoods. Like a tsunami wave, bringing waves of water to dry land, the impact of the pandemic spread chronic absenteeism far and wide across the country. As seen in this map, created by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, in nearly all states, the majority of school districts had chronic absenteeism rates of twenty percent or higher in 2021-22; many experienced rates of thirty percent or more. Rural areas were not immune from large increases. Looking at the five rural districts in each state, with the greatest number of chronically absent students, shows that 138 rural districts had between 1,000 and 9,000 chronically absent students. This means that large numbers of school districts were confronted with an issue with which they had little experience, accumulated know-how, or established response systems.

In districts where chronic absenteeism had been a challenge prior to the pandemic, post-pandemic levels exceeded the capacity of existing response systems.

Before the pandemic, a district with a high rate of chronic absenteeism typically had rates between twenty and thirty percent. Post-pandemic, many of these districts saw their chronic absenteeism rates soar to fifty percent or higher. In short, missing a month or more of schooling became the normal experience for the majority of students in the district. When this occurs for a district of any size, the sheer number of students who were chronically absent becomes daunting. A large district with 80,000 students could have 45,000 who were chronically absent. A smaller district of 10,000 could have 5,000 chronically absent students. The intensity of the challenge might be best seen at the school level. In 27 states in 2021-22, half of the chronically absent students in the state attended a school where there were 200 or more chronically absent students. Think for a moment of what a school faces in reaching out to and supporting over two hundred students who are facing assorted challenges to attending school on a regular basis. Very few school’s student support systems were built for this scale and intensity of need. In 35 states, there were between 100 and 950 schools where 200 or more students were chronically absent. In the four largest states plus Arizona, there were between 1,000 and 3,000 schools with 200 or more chronically absent students.

Half of the nation’s chronically absent students are concentrated in just six percent (1,000) of school districts, which are located in every state.

The significant increase in chronic absenteeism rates in the school districts that had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism before the pandemic resulted in half of all chronically absent students in the nation being concentrated in just 1,000 (6%) of the nation’s roughly 17,000 school districts. In 36 states half of chronically absent students are concentrated in twenty or fewer school districts in the state. Districts’ ability to establish comprehensive and effective responses aligned with the scale and intensity of their attendance challenge will have outsized impacts on state and national chronic absenteeism rates and related educational and well-being outcomes. The other half of the nation’s chronically absent students are found everywhere, spread across the remaining 94% (16,000) of school districts.

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