Chronic Absenteeism in U.S. Schools Rose During Pandemic — and Hasn’t Recovered

Posted September 20, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young black boy wearing a plaid shirt and backpack stands outside of a bus; has his back turned toward the camera

As schools across the nation kick off anoth­er aca­d­e­m­ic year, chron­ic absen­teeism among stu­dents is a lin­ger­ing con­cern. Case in point: The share of fourth graders who were chron­i­cal­ly absent from school spiked dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, from 24% in 2019 to 36% in 2022, accord­ing to data from the Nation­al Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion­al Progress (NAEP) on the KIDS COUNT® Data Center.

Chron­ic absen­teeism is typ­i­cal­ly defined as stu­dents miss­ing at least 10% of the school year. The NAEP mea­sure cov­ers a short­er time frame and is based on stu­dents miss­ing three or more days of school in the last month.

Chron­ic stu­dent absences can be for any rea­son, excused or unex­cused. In fact, chron­ic absences are com­mon­ly excused rather than unex­cused. The absences may be due to health or men­tal health issues, trans­porta­tion bar­ri­ers, an unsafe com­mute to school or oth­er fac­tors. Chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, chil­dren who live in pover­ty and chil­dren who live in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence chron­ic absences from school when com­pared to their gen­er­al-pop­u­la­tion peers, accord­ing to Atten­dance Works.

The alarm­ing spike in stu­dent absen­teeism record­ed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic coin­cides with declin­ing test scores over the same peri­od, as pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed by the KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter.

This trend is reflect­ed in data from the Nation­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics. The cen­ter found that more than 70% of U.S. pub­lic schools saw an uptick in stu­dent chron­ic absen­teeism rel­a­tive to the start of the pan­dem­ic. It also found that the aver­age scores of 9‑year-old stu­dents had dropped by 5 points in read­ing and 7 points in math nation­wide between 2020 and 2022.

Why Stu­dent Absen­teeism Matters

School atten­dance is crit­i­cal for aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess. Less instruc­tion means less learn­ing. It also means less time to form con­nec­tions with teach­ers and peers. And, once stu­dents fall behind aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, it can be extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for these chil­dren — and espe­cial­ly chil­dren with lim­it­ed resources — to catch up.

Chron­ic absen­teeism also places stu­dents at greater risk of drop­ping out of school, and this ear­ly aca­d­e­m­ic exit can car­ry life­long con­se­quences, reduc­ing both an individual’s employ­ment and earn­ing options far into adulthood.

State-Lev­el Out­look on School Absenteeism

Sim­i­lar to the nation­al trend: From 2019 to 2022, all states report­ed an uptick in fourth graders who were chron­i­cal­ly absent from school. Among states with data avail­able for 2022, the share of fre­quent­ly absent fourth-graders ranged from a low of 30% in New Jer­sey to a high of 44% in Louisiana and Hawaii. That same year, 18 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia exceed­ed the nation­al fig­ure of 36%.

End­ing Stu­dent Absenteeism

Chron­ic absen­teeism among stu­dents can be elim­i­nat­ed through data-dri­ven, sys­temic approach­es that involve strong lead­er­ship and strong part­ner­ships among schools, dis­tricts and com­mu­ni­ties. These efforts must engage stu­dents and fam­i­lies and address absences ear­ly before a stu­dent gets behind in school. Accord­ing­ly, accu­rate and time­ly data are need­ed to iden­ti­fy issues quick­ly and inform pre­ven­tion and ear­ly inter­ven­tion efforts. Dis­tricts can make use of fed­er­al fund­ing, such as the Ele­men­tary and Sec­ondary School Emer­gency Relief Fund, to sup­port such strategies.

More Resources on Stu­dent Absen­teeism and Education

Progress is pos­si­ble. Learn more about what lead­ers and advo­cates can do to address chron­ic absen­teeism and relat­ed stu­dent inequities:

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