By on 3.23.23 in Education

Chronic absenteeism is a metric that’s closely monitored by school districts, because it can be a sign that students are out of school so much that it can affect their academic progress. In this post, we talk about how the pandemic has affected student attendance data.

First, a definition:

Chronic absenteeism is the percent of public K-12 students who missed ten percent or more of school days in a year. We calculate chronic absenteeism using the following equation:

Chronic Absenteeism Rate (%) = Number of students chronically absent / Total number of students enrolled

Why does chronic absenteeism matter?

As part of our partnership with myFutureNC, we launched a  statewide attainment dashboard to serve as a shared, nonpartisan source of information about the state of education in North Carolina. The dashboard tracks proven indicators along the education continuum, including chronic absenteeism, because being physically present in school is a necessary precursor to learning. As the dashboard for chronic absenteeism notes:

In early grades, chronic absenteeism may prevent students from developing skills they will need in later grades. The MyFutureNC dashboard entry for chronic absenteeism notes that “Research finds a consistent relationship between early attendance and later achievement. Effects of chronic absenteeism in early grades include lower academic performance in 1st and 5th grades, persistently lower academic scores in grades 3-5, an increased likelihood in reading below grade level, and an increased likelihood in of reading intervention. In middle school, chronically absent students are less likely to be on-track to graduate high school on time, and chronically absent high schoolers face higher chances of dropping out.

What do we know from the 2020-2021 school year data?

With the implementation of school closures in spring 2020, schools were no longer mandated to report attendance from March 30 through May 15, 2020. While attendance-taking was reinstated for the 2020-21 school year, the data may not be comparable to prior years due to the challenges of capturing attendance of students across the variety of learning environments (in-person and both synchronous and asynchronous virtual). This makes interpretation difficult.

At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, school districts were given the option to continue remote learning or offer a hybrid learning environment comprised of remote and in person instruction. The non-profit education journalism website EdNC tracked fall reopening plans for all NC school districts through a spreadsheet they maintained during the pandemic.

In addition, Virtual Academy was offered in North Carolina for K-8 students. NC Virtual Academy is defined as a separate entity within school districts, which required a separate application process and specially assigns teachers to classes separately from one’s assigned school.

As the EdNC dashboard makes clear, the difficulties of collecting accurate attendance data for students was compounded by the fact that school districts implemented different schooling options from the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

  • 18% of districts implemented a hybrid learning environment (Plan B).
  • 27% implemented a hybrid learning environment and Virtual Academy (Plan B & Virtual Academy).
  • 31% implemented a fully remote learning environment without Virtual Academy (Plan C), and
  • 23% implemented a fully remote learning environment and Virtual Academy (Plan C & Virtual Academy).

You can see the definitions for each of these plans in this chart or in the EdNC spreadsheet.

These different learning environments affected attendance data collection. At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

  • 67% of districts specified how attendance should be taken in remote settings
  • 32% of districts did not specify how attendance should be taken in remote settings and ,
  • 1% of districts only specified for the Virtual Academy.

Given that attendance specification was not implemented in a roughly a third of the state's school districts, it can be expected that drawing conclusions from the 2020-2021 attendance data could be problematic.

How did districts serving more students of color measure attendance?

Among districts serving less than 30% students of color, 76% of those students were in a hybrid learning environment and 24% were in a fully remote environment. Among districts serving more than 65% students of color, 24% of students were in a hybrid learning environment and 76% of students were in a fully remote environment. Given that 32% of districts did not specify how attendance should be taken in remote settings, and that districts serving higher percentages of students of color had higher rates of remote learning implementation, the attendance data for the 2020-21 school year for districts with larger percentages of students of color are likely to be less informative and should be interpreted cautiously.

Student attendance is not only an important benchmark for measuring student success, attendance rates also influence district budgets, “if the average daily membership is lower than projected, districts can face budget reductions.” EdNC reported that average daily membership was “held harmless” in the 2020-2021 school year, meaning it would not be taken into account when district budget decisions were made.

How might the 2021-2022 school year data be different?

At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, school openings were not measured by EdNC or the North Carolina School Board association because most school districts were fully in person at this time. During the 2021-2022 school year, Chronic absenteeism grew among all racial/ethnic groups tracked by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

What are possible explanations for these increases?

It is unclear why this is the case given accounting for attendance is easier when instruction is in person. In North Carolina, we see the largest increase in chronic absenteeism among the American Indian population. Increases in chronic absenteeism rates during the 2021-22 school year have taken place nation-wide. Survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) taken at the end of the 2021-22 school year showed that more than 72 percent of schools nationwide saw increases in chronic student absenteeism. Potential explanations listed in a Washington Post article about the notable increase include students needing to care for siblings due to daycare closures and mental health issues.

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