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Policies promoting strong schools and academic success impact students’ lives as adults, long after they leave the classroom. Beyond the significance for individuals, the educational development of our children and young people is a key input into the economy and has spillover benefits to society more broadly. While the evidence is clear that students and society benefit from attending well-resourced schools with effective teachers, these benefits can only materialize if students are present and engaged.
A necessary step to ensure students benefit from all that schools have to offer is to support students’ consistent presence in the classroom—which is why the Biden-Harris Administration is focused on the issue of chronic absenteeism. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, one study found that the number of public school students who are chronically absent—meaning they miss at least 10 percent of days in a school year, whether excused or unexcused—has nearly doubled, from about 15 percent in the 2018-2019 school year to around 30 percent in 2021-2022. These large increases in absenteeism are widespread: every state for which data were available in this study saw significant increases in rates of chronic absenteeism between the 2018-2019 and 2021-2022 school years. Disparities in levels of chronic absenteeism across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines also widened.
Research shows that school absences take a toll on grades and performance on standardized tests. Beyond test scores, irregular attendance can be a predictor of high school drop-out, which has been linked to poor labor market prospects, diminished health, and increased involvement in the criminal justice system. Students who are chronically absent are at higher risk for these adverse outcomes.
The increases in chronic absenteeism are large enough that they could be a substantial contributor to declines in post-pandemic test scores. (While test scores are not the only important aspect of student success, they provide a measurable early indicator that is predictive of broader long-term outcomes.) To examine this question, the Council of Economic Advisers partnered with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to analyze national data which includes measures of both standardized test scores and absenteeism during the 2018-2019 and 2021-2022 school years. Using regression analysis to document the strong association between absenteeism and test scores (after controlling for other factors), we then implement a decomposition analysis to simulate how much of the decline in test scores could be attributed to increases in absenteeism.
Figure 1 illustrates the results of this descriptive analysis. The vertical bars indicate the average decline in scores between 2019 and 2022, by subject and grade level. The green portions of each bar indicate how much smaller these declines might be if absenteeism had not increased at all. We find that, even after controlling for changes in other characteristics of the student body over time, the observed association between absenteeism and test scores is large enough to account for 16-27 percent of the overall test score declines in math, and 36-45 percent of the declines in reading.
These results come with several caveats: most importantly, we do not yet know the extent to which the recent increase in absenteeism is a stand-alone, causal contributor to test score declines, and to what extent it is a symptom of other factors that could account for both the increases in student absenteeism and declines in performance. Such factors could include declining mental and physical health, familial responsibilities, or other demands on students’ mental and physical resources.
Given the magnitude of test score declines and extent of chronic absenteeism, pandemic recovery efforts require an “all-hands-on-deck” response. While State-administered test scores from the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years show some early signs of rebounding from the major disruptions of the pandemic, estimates suggest the average elementary school student would need sufficient supports and instructional time to sustain additional gains for several years in order to reach the performance of comparable pre-COVID cohorts. Without such sustained investments, one group of researchers estimated that these disruptions could cost American students $2 trillion in lifetime earnings.
Ensuring that all students benefit from the full scope of pandemic recovery efforts requires that they are present in schools. Targeted interventions such as early warning systems, mailing outreach, and text nudges have shown promise in increasing attendance, especially among students who would have otherwise have been chronically absent from school. Research on the potential benefits of high-dosage tutoring and other evidence-based interventions implemented in afterschool programs or summer school can help educators and school leaders create a network of supports that best address student needs.
The Biden-Harris Administration has undertaken significant efforts to combat chronic absenteeism and make sure that students are in the classroom and engaged in school. This includes: disseminating grant funds that can resource interventions and supports; offering technical assistance to States and districts; investing in comprehensive mental health programs for students; and establishing and strengthening the National Partnership for Student Success, which marshals evidence-backed supports such as tutoring and mentoring to help keep students engaged and on-track. Additionally, States have until next school year to use remaining Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds set aside for P-12 schools in the American Rescue Plan that can be used towards academic recovery, school attendance and engagement, and other efforts.
Making up for lost time and learning disruption means empowering students and their families to take an active role in their academic recovery, and tracking and addressing chronic absenteeism will be an important aspect of these recovery efforts in the months and years to come. Ultimately, whether chronic absenteeism is a symptom or a cause—or both—of ongoing academic disruption, the evidence is clear that the road to recovery runs through the classroom.