Chronic Absenteeism in U.S. Schools Rose During Pandemic — and Hasn’t Recovered
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:
- Attendance Works
- Attendance Awareness Campaign 2023
- Addressing Chronic Absenteeism, The Education Trust
- 5 Things for Advocates to Know About Chronic Absenteeism, The Education Trust
- See all education data on the KIDS COUNT Data Center
- Education resource roundup, the Annie E. Casey Foundation