Chronic Absences Rise To Record Levels In California, But So Do Graduation Rates
Rates of chronically absent students in California in 2021-22 nearly tripled statewide from before the pandemic to record levels: 30% for kindergartners and the state overall, and 42.5% for Black students, the California Department of Education reported Thursday.
After a year in remote learning, rates soared when schools reopened only to face surges in Covid, disrupting families while creating challenges for re-engaging many students. Among the most alarming rates were for kindergartners: 30% — almost double the pre-pandemic rate.
The surge in chronic absenteeism mirrored other states, the department said, citing higher rates in Florida and Michigan. Record absences contributed to a big drop in standardized test scores and other measures showing learning disruptions. In California, students who miss at least 10% of the instructional days in a 180-day academic year are considered chronically absent.
As part of the restart of the California School Dashboard, the department also released state, district and school rates for high school graduation, student suspensions and English learners’ progress in learning English.
The dashboard offers a broad look at student performance through multiple measures of academic achievement and school engagement and is an accountability tool that designates low-performing districts for several levels of county and state assistance. The public can use it to look up the data for each measure and the ratings by more than a dozen student groups.
The State Board of Education suspended the dashboard due to Covid in 2019-20 and partially revived it in 2020-21. The department had planned to include the release of Smarter Balanced test scores from 2022 as well, but, under pressure from the public and the press,released the scores in late October.
The high school graduation rate in 2021-22 reached a record high statewide and rose significantly for most student groups, although the progress warrants an asterisk. Recognizing the hardships many students experienced during Covid and the challenges of teachers in grading fairly during remote learning, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 104. It allowed parents to request that F’s and D’s for high school students be changed to pass or no-pass. It also gave last year’s juniors and seniors the option to graduate with the state’s minimum requirements, made up of 13 courses totaling about 130 credits. Some districts require additional math and other courses.
At the same time, districts offered summer programs for students who fell behind and revised school schedules for more instruction time. The rates were adjusted for fifth-year seniors after legislation permitted them to return to finish up.
The statewide rate of 87% was 3.4 percentage points higher than in 2020-21, and most student groups made similar progress. Rates for English learners rose to 71.8% and Black students increased 6.1 points to 78.6%. Latino students were up 4.2 points to 84.7%; white students rose above 90%, and the rate for Asian students increased 1.1 point to 95.2%.
The proportion of English learners showing progress toward reaching English proficiency increased slightly, compared with pre-pandemic 2018-19, as measured by the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California. Just over half of English learners made progress — 50.3% — compared with 48.3% three years earlier.
Alarming chronic absenteeism
Large disparities in chronic absences existed before the pandemic among student groups and expanded in 2021-22. The only student group whose 2021-22 chronic absenteeism rate did not rise above the state’s pre-pandemic rate of 12.1% in 2018-19 was Asian students. Their rate in 2021-22 was 11.4%.
“These are absolutely the worst levels we’ve seen. They’re extraordinary,” said Hedy Chang, executive director at Attendance Works, which studies school attendance. “Even before the pandemic, we knew that chronic absenteeism affected lower-income students more than their peers. These numbers show that existing inequities have been exacerbated.”
Among the most alarming rates last year were kindergartners. They missed out on valuable instruction that’s crucial for academic success in later grades. Among African Americans kindergartners, 52% were chronically absent. Pacific Islanders had an even higher rate: 60%.
“This is a sign we’re not connecting with kids,” Chang said. “It really calls for us to figure out better ways to support and engage with families. It’s incredibly important.”
The high rates for chronic absenteeism were expected; some districts already had reported them, such as Los Angeles Unified (39.5% overall with over half of Black students chronically absent), as part of efforts to engage families and identify students for extra help.
In all grades, some of the student absences last year can be attributed to Covid quarantines, as many schools reopened to in-person learning with strict health guidelines. But that doesn’t account for the whole picture, Chang said.
Other causes include anxiety about returning to school, lack of routine after months of remote learning, social-emotional struggles, academic frustrations, lack of transportation to school and housing instability due to the end of eviction moratoriums and the persistently high cost of living in California, she said.
Setting school districts up for what will require a multi-year effort, the Legislature appropriated about $25 billion in additional funding in the 2022-23 state budget. This includes a record $9.2 billion increase in general spending through the Local Control Funding Formula, $7.9 billion giving districts a range of recovery options, $3.6 billion in an open-ended block grant and $4 billon for after-school learning. Most of the money can be spent over several years. In addition, there is $4.7 billion to address the mental health needs of children and young adults.
California County Superintendents President Debra Duardo, the superintendent of the Los Angeles County, said the dashboard underscores the importance of “whole child initiatives” – expanded learning opportunities, universal meals, Transitional Kindergarten, and community schools.
“Despite our best efforts, we cannot provide the support students need through curriculum and instruction alone. We need to prioritize students’ health, social emotional development, trauma, and basic needs which all have a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn and succeed,” she said.
No color ratings this year
The dashboard will look different than in past years when the state used color ratings (blue, green, orange and red) to designate performance on each of the major indicators. The colors incorporated the results for the latest year combined with how much performance changed from the year before. Because of the lapse in reporting test scores and other data during Covid, only the 2021-22 results were included this year. Next year, with two years of performance in hand, the state will resume using colors.
Nonetheless, this latest data will guide districts as they chart strategies for learning recovery and support well-being, said California School Boards Association President Susan Markarian, a trustee of the Pacific Union Elementary School District. “The dashboard offers an important tool to use in this work and for engaging the public on collaborative solutions that meet student needs and strengthen public schools,” she said. “It’s a sobering, if not unexpected, look at the lingering impact of the pandemic and underscores the need for continued investment in public education. Many of the issues facing schools are generational in nature and will extend beyond the timeline of emergency relief funding.”
In the latest ratings, performance on each of six indicators received one of five ratings: very high, high, medium, low and very low. These ratings in turn determined which districts would receive county assistance, based on the performance of student groups within the district, not the district as a whole. For example, districts with at least two student groups with very high chronic absenteeism and very low test scores in math and English language arts would qualify the district for that assistance. West Contra Costa Unified is an example.
This year, 628 out of about 1,000 districts will be eligible for county help, compared with 356 school districts in 2020-21. Next year, with improvement expected, many fewer will likely qualify. Charter schools were excluded from assistance this year but will be measured for it next year.
“The dashboard remains an important transparency tool to understand how districts and schools are performing,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. “It’s unfortunate that we lost a number of years of data to the pandemic; what is coming out indicates a need to double down to try to address inequities in the system.”
The new dashboard includesone-page fliers that are usage guides for parents. However, Jessica Sawko, director of education for the advocacy nonprofit Children Now, said she was frustrated that the dashboard “did not do a better job outlining achievement gaps in a more powerful way than it did. For example, a parent would have to dig deeply to see the staggering performance of student groups. It will take quite a bit of time for parents to navigate this while at work or home with kids running around you,” she said.
EdSource reporter Carolyn Jones contributed to this article.