Chronic Absenteeism: Not Just an Issue for Older Students

There are proven strategies that schools and districts can use to help reduce absenteeism in the early grades
Blog Post
Sept. 20, 2023

As the new school year gets underway and students return to class, attention is rightfully being paid to the continued need to help students recover from the steep loss in student learning caused by pandemic-related school closures. Schools are working hard to help students gain lost academic ground through a myriad of strategies, such as intensive tutoring, summer programs, and after-school activities. But another negative impact from the pandemic is making it difficult for schools to successfully implement these policies: rising rates of chronic absenteeism among students. Simply put, it’s hard to help students catch up when the students aren’t consistently in school.

The data are now clear: rates of chronic absenteeism, defined as missing ten percent or more of the academic year, have surged since the pandemic resulted in extended school closures. According to new data from Stanford University, the chronic absenteeism rate increased 91 percent between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years, rising from 14.8 percent of K-12 public school enrollment to 28.3 percent. In fact, every state as well as D.C. has seen a steady rise in chronic absenteeism among students. For example, rates of chronic absenteeism between 2018-19 and 2021-22 in New York rose from 19 percent of students to 33 percent. In California, the rate grew from 12 percent to 30 percent. And in Texas, the rate increased from 11 percent to 26 percent.

It can be difficult to understand how much chronic absenteeism is impacting our youngest learners because only 18 states publish the data by grade level. The data we do have, however, paint a pessimistic picture. Grade-level data from Attendance Works from California, Connecticut, and Ohio show that chronic absenteeism is especially high in kindergarten. In California, for example, kindergarten chronic absenteeism more than doubled between 2018-19 and 2021-22, surging from 15.6 percent of kindergarten students to 40.4 percent.

These high rates of absenteeism in kindergarten are especially concerning given what we know about the importance of the kindergarten year and the negative consequences of missing large portions of this important year. “Even if kindergarten isn’t mandatory, consistent attendance every day is a crucial time for helping children gain the foundational skills that will help prepare them for success in school. Research shows that starting in pre-K and kindergarten, chronic absence is associated with lower levels of proficiency in reading and math as well as social-emotional development,” said Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works, in an email interview.

There are a number of studies that support Chang’s point. A 2018 study found that chronically absent pre-K students displayed lower levels of academic and behavioral kindergarten readiness and were more likely to be chronically absent in subsequent grades. A 2021 study found a link between kindergarten chronic absenteeism and long-term declines in executive functioning skills. And more recently, researchers in Delaware analyzed thousands of student records over multiple years and found that chronic absenteeism in kindergarten predicted lower test scores on Delaware’s Smarter Balanced assessment in both math and English language arts in third grade.

The good news among all this disconcerting data is that districts and schools are not powerless when it comes to combating chronic absenteeism. In fact, a recent report from FutureEd and Attendance Works identifies over two dozen effective, scalable approaches for reducing rates of chronic absenteeism. While the report covers the full span of grade levels, several of the strategies outlined are particularly suited for addressing chronic absenteeism in the early grades.

For example, one strategy outlined is providing free meals for all students. While this approach might not seem to be closely related to absenteeism, a recent study from Syracuse University finds that New York City students who received universal free meals (UFM) in kindergarten had higher attendance rates and lower rates of chronic absenteeism compared to their peers who did not receive UFM. And a 2019 study of over 1,000 Wisconsin elementary schools found that universal free breakfast programs helped reduce the probability of low attendance.

Another strategy highlighted in the report that holds promise for younger students is home visits targeted to students with a high number of absences. Connecticut, for example, invested over $10 million in federal COVID-relief funding to launch the Learner Attendance and Engagement Program (LEAP) in 15 districts with a goal of building relationships and improving communication with frequently absent students and their parents. The results have been promising so far, with attendance rates rising 15 percentage points six months after the initial visits. “Parents are more likely to send their children to school if they trust the teacher and also understand how what is happening in the classroom benefits their child. Relational home visits are a proven way to help that happen and reduce chronic absence,” said Chang.

High rates of absenteeism in kindergarten and the early grades are not a new problem. In fact, I wrote about this issue back in 2015 and reflected on the attendance issues I witnessed in my own classrooms over four years of teaching pre-K and kindergarten. What has changed, however, is the severity of the problem. The data make clear that the pandemic has transformed chronic absenteeism among young children from a serious problem to a true crisis. Schools and districts must now take on the difficult, but imperative task of getting young students into the classroom on a consistent basis. It’s only with consistent attendance that we can have real hope that young students will overcome the difficulties caused by the pandemic and make the progress needed to succeed in the early grades and all the grades that follow.

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Birth Through Third Grade Learning