Chronic Absenteeism and Math Learning Loss Are Adding Up: What We Can Do About It


Mar 4, 2024

Empty table in a classroom with backpack on chair and students at chalkboard in background, photo by MANICO/Getty Images

Photo by MANICO/Getty Images

It may sound obvious, but K–12 students need to attend school in order to learn. Recent media coverage has emphasized several COVID-19 pandemic legacies that are leading to a loss of learning for students, including unprecedented declines in math achievement, widening achievement gaps, and chronic absenteeism. In 2022 (PDF), 28 percent of students across the country were chronically absent (missed 10 percent or more of the school year), up from 15 percent prepandemic. Although achievement has declined in both math and English Language Arts (ELA) since the start of the pandemic, the losses have been larger in math.

The recent decline in math achievement, and the overall widening achievement gaps in math, are particularly concerning, because success in math has been shown to be a particularly important indicator of long-term success in college and beyond. For example, students who participate in advanced mathematics courses are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in and complete college, and have higher incomes later in life.

The relationship between increases in chronic absenteeism and declines in math achievement is not a coincidence. The connection between the two is top of mind for principals across the country. Our American Mathematics Educator Study found that one out of three principals nationally reported chronic absenteeism as a major obstacle for students learning math.

Principals of schools that serve mostly low-income students, and Black or Hispanic students—many of whom already lagged behind their peers in math achievement—are most concerned. In our study, nearly half of the principals we surveyed in high-poverty schools reported that student absenteeism was a major obstacle to math learning, compared to less than one-quarter of principals in low-poverty schools. Fully half of all principals in schools where most students are Black or Hispanic cited absenteeism as a major obstacle to math learning.

Fully half of all principals in schools where most students are Black or Hispanic cited absenteeism as a major obstacle to math learning.

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Principals are right to be concerned. The math performance of Hispanic and Black 9-year-old students, respectively, declined by 8 and 13 percentage points, compared to a decline of only 5 percentage points for White 9-year-olds. Achievement declines for Hispanic students and Black students in math were greater than those for ELA, and racial achievement gaps in ELA did not widen. These patterns exist for chronic absenteeism, too—24 percent of White students were chronically absent in 2022, as compared to 36 and 39 percent of Hispanic and Black students, respectively.

A necessary first step to helping students—particularly Black students, Hispanic students, and low-income students—recover learning in math is to support them to attend school. This is easier said than done, however, because the underlying reasons for chronic absenteeism vary.

Parents may have changed how they make decisions about when to send their children to school. Some parents (and students) may see less value in regular attendance, given that schooling screeched to a halt for an extended period during the pandemic. Others may now hesitate to send their children to school with a runny nose or mild cough, especially if students are stigmatized for exhibiting these symptoms at school. Or, some parents may avoid school altogether if COVID-19 cases or other illnesses are spiking in their community. Growing depression and anxiety among students—part of a broader student mental health crisis—is also a leading contributor to absences from school.

What can educators and parents do? To start with, principals should aim to understand which students are most likely to be chronically absent, and why. For example, principals could look at their attendance data in order to learn which students are missing school, and when. This data can shed light on which students should be targeted for intervention, and what times of year the school should increase messaging about the importance of attendance. Principals could also consider gathering information from students and families to pinpoint the most common causes (PDF) for attendance issues in their community and use this information to decide what supports to provide.

Second, principals could consider redistributing some ESSER funding to initiatives that seek to boost attendance. All the tutoring in the world won't boost math achievement if kids are not present. Some examples of attendance interventions may include home visits, mental health supports, anti-bullying efforts, or increased access to transportation.

A necessary first step to helping students recover learning in math is to support them to attend school.

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Third, district leaders should carefully consider whether remote or virtual learning really benefits all students. Remote learning has its appeal: students can learn while home sick, or when school is closed for weather events. But we know that remote learning is not as effective as in-person instruction, and that technology issues (PDF), or lack of online access, can limit student engagement and attendance. If districts continue to employ remote or virtual learning to supplement in-person instruction, they should ensure that teachers have adequate materials and support, and that students have working technology and online access.

Finally, parents need to do their part, too. If your child is struggling to get to school, reach out to your child's teachers and school leaders to collaborate on a solution. There may be resources available, such as carpool groups, mentoring programs, or school-based mental health services for your child. In many cases, your child's school can act as a liaison to other social services and programs to get your family the support it needs to get your child to school.

Lauren Covelli is an associate policy researcher and Elizabeth D. Steiner is an education policy researcher at RAND.