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The Nation Faces School Attendance and Graduation Crises

Chronic absence soared during the pandemic, and graduation rates dropped for the first time in 15 years. The first step out of this dangerous trend is knowing more about who’s missing.

Empty Classroom.jpg
Chronic absenteeism reached crisis levels during the past two years.
(Thomas Hengge/TNS)
For K-12 students, chronic absence, generally defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days, has escalated into a “full-scale crisis” since 2019, says a new report from the nonprofit Attendance Works, with two- and threefold increases in many states. The levels are highest among low-income and minority students, it says, from the same communities most affected by the pandemic in other ways.

“We all hoped this was going to be the year of not only ‘back,' but ‘back better,’” says researcher Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. “Then we saw continuing reports of chronic absenteeism staying high and even going higher.”

At the extreme end of this trend, a March survey from the Government Accountability Office found that in the 2020-2021 school year, almost half of public-school teachers had at least one student who never showed up for class at all. Graduation rates are down in most states for the first time in 15 years, and it’s both common sense and scientific fact that fewer students in class adds up to fewer graduates.

“Almost 10 percent of the school population seems to have disappeared,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

States began to pay more attention to tracking chronic absence before the pandemic, but more work is needed. There’s no better place to start for districts that want to untangle what needs to be done in their communities to get educational outcomes and graduation rates back on track, says Balfanz.
Remote learning made it possible to keep students connected during school closures, but also brought challenges for tracking attendance.
(Josã M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Progress in Fits and Starts

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed in to law in 2015 and implemented beginning in 2017, requires states to look beyond test scores and graduation rates to measure their performance. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia adopted chronic absence as an accountability measure in response to this mandate, says Hedy Chang, the founder and executive director of Attendance Works.

“People realized it was connected to learning, it was already being collected and it’s not that hard to calculate now you have electronic data systems,” says Chang. “It became a popular metric.”

Then COVID-19 arrived and from March through June of 2020, many schools completely stopped taking attendance. In the 2020-2021 school year, they resumed attendance counts.

In February and March of 2022, Attendance Works sent an online survey to its contacts in every state that included questions regarding their policies for recording attendance, and whether they shared chronic absence data for the 2020-2021 school year with the public. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia responded.

Ninety-six percent of respondents said they were taking attendance daily for in-person instruction, an essential first step toward real-time tracking of frequent absences.

Nine in 10 shared the same definition for chronic absence (missing 10 percent of the school year), and nine in 10 had either made chronic absence data for the 2020-2021 school year available on the Internet or planned to do so.

The rate at which such data is shared is another matter. During the pandemic, Connecticut began to release data monthly on its education website, but it is alone among states in this practice. Biweekly data publication would be even better, says Balfanz, if schools really want to stay ahead of problems.

Attendance connects to performance, whether moving to the next grade, high school completion or postsecondary enrollment, says Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), a nonprofit that advocates for better use of data in education policy and practice, and there’s a clear cutoff point at which these become less likely.

Parents need to be notified as soon as it’s evident a child is on track to reach this cutoff point, she says. “Having chronic absence data at the local level is critical to those conversations, because that’s where you can make the change and reinforce that it’s important to come to school.” Collecting information about why students aren’t coming to school along the way can inform systemic solutions with real-time relevance.

“Attendance is taken every day in every school in America,” says Kowalski. “It’s just a matter of getting that data in a more timely manner and applying a tool or analytic on top of it to get regular reports.”

The pandemic and relief funds have helped make this possible, says Balfanz. “Everyone has a modern student information system now, and many of them have chronic absenteeism modules and widgets,” he says. “It’s like our cellphones — we need to use the capacity we have in a productive way.”
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A middle school vice-principal in Hartford, Conn. jumps from an "escape room" as part of an exercise to encourage school attendance.
(Mark Mirko/TNS)

What Comes After Tracking?

Attendance Works found improvements in some aspects of data collection that could be implemented more broadly, such as including data on excused versus unexcused absences, disaggregating chronic absence data to include categories such as ethnicity, income, homelessness, access to technology, foster care or special needs.

Monitoring attendance in isolation is not enough to identify the root causes of why students miss school, agrees Alexandra Meis, co-developer of a mobile and web application designed to improve both tracking and communication regarding school absences, recently acquired by PowerSchool.

Expanded data sets only bring things into sharper focus, however. Even with better analytic tools, it takes conversations between social workers and guidance counselors to find out why students are not in school, Meis says. Many school districts have hired additional personnel to go to the homes of missing students to answer this question, says AASA’s Domenech, and to try to get them to come back.

Technology can help create more time for these kinds of personal interactions, says Meis, automating functions such as sending text messages or emails to parents when a student has missed school or generating attendance letters, in any language spoken by parents in a school community.

The personal connection deficit is significant at this time, says Balfanz, not least because 200,000 students lost a parent to COVID-19 and even more lost grandparents.

“This year was probably the all-time low for positive relationships between students and teachers, and students and students,” he says. In middle schools, for example, two-thirds of the students were new to their teachers and new to each other because both sixth and seventh graders attended school virtually the year before.

In addition, staffing and substitute shortages mean that the teachers that are there are having to spend their energy covering the classes of absent teachers and have less time to create new relationships with students.
An elementary principal in Florida works inside her school lunchroom to help fill in for missing teachers. Shortages have made it harder for teachers and students to build, or reestablish, relationships.
(Willie J. Allen Jr./TNS)

Better Data, More People Power

States can play an important role in reducing chronic attendance by taking steps such as adopting common standards for measuring attendance, investments in data quality, expanded metrics and publishing disaggregated data, says Chang. “We can make data even more meaningful in the future, so people can use it for allocating resources or identifying best practices.”

A national effort launched this week by the Biden administration is poised to provide “people power” that can act on such data. The National Partnership for Student Success (NPSS) aims to help students and schools recover by engaging 250,000 adults to work with parents and educators as “tutors, mentors, student success coaches, wraparound service coordinators and postsecondary transition coaches.”

The Everyone Graduates Center is a partner in this effort, along with AmeriCorps and the U.S. Department of Education. As many as a hundred education and youth development organizations have already lined up behind it, says Balfanz, and reducing chronic absenteeism is a core goal of its work.

“Everyone’s doing his part, but if we link our efforts together we can do more and we can figure out ways to get more caring adults integrated into schools — there are evidence-based solutions, but they require people to deliver them.”

Mayors and city administrators are natural partners in this effort, whether paying attention to the public transportation issues that make it hard for students to get to school, assisting homeless students or finding innovative ways to use city government resources to help students graduate and find their way to solid jobs.

This could be as simple as sharing information. Some students have stayed home during the pandemic to care for elderly relatives, unaware that Medicaid might pay for a home health-care aid. “What 15-year-old knows there are ways to get support for that?” asks Balfanz.
Truant students care for their father's mules, circa 1917. Some high school students left school during the pandemic to work and support their families.
(Library of Congress)

Getting Back on Track

Solutions will vary from school to school and family to family and, until COVID-19 moves further into the background, some might not be fully in the hands of schools, says DQC’s Paige Kowalski. But regardless of why a student didn’t come to school, simply knowing that they didn’t is critical.

“Even if you didn't come to school for really good reasons, or for reasons you had no control over, it's still a missed opportunity to learn.”

It will take time to make up for opportunities missed in recent years and to rebuild trust, says Meis. “As school buildings closed, opened, closed and reopened again, relationships between school and home fractured — for students who depended on the physical warmth of a school building, whether that be in the form of a teacher’s hug or a hot meal, this stability vanished overnight.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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