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Ninety Percent Student Attendance Won’t Solve Chronic Absenteeism

American Enterprise Institute

January 19, 2024

One day after Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona presented the Biden administration’s “Improving Student Achievement Agenda,” which appropriately focused on the unprecedented chronic absenteeism rates in US public schools, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released data under the headline, “Public School Leaders Report 90 Percent Average Daily Student Attendance Rate in November 2023.” With nationwide chronic absenteeism rates of about 29 percent in 2021–22 and 27 percent in the 39 states that have released data for 2022–23 (up from 15 percent in 2018–19), this report of 90 percent attendance may seem like the attendance crisis has passed. But has it?

Unfortunately, no. While they sound like two sides of the same coin, average daily attendance (ADA) is not simply the inverse of chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is the percentage of students who miss 10 percent or more of an entire school year, whereas ADA is the percentage of students absent on any given day. A 90 percent attendance rate might seem good, but it’s not. It means that across the country, about one in 10 students is absent on a given day. (Just think about how an employer would react if a tenth of their employees did not show up to work on the average day!) Over the course of a year, that translates into a pretty high number of students missing 10 percent of the entire year. Last year, for instance, at least one in four students was chronically absent. That is bad for achievement, odds of graduation, and a number of long-term markers of success. In my view, this is the greatest post-pandemic challenge for public schools.

Indeed, chronic absenteeism is far worse after the pandemic, affecting more than one in four students last school year. Those rates track pretty well with an estimated ADA of 90 percent, which is a significant decrease from pre-pandemic levels. NCES data show that ADA in 2016 and 2018 was a bit north of 93 percent. While that seems close to the 90 percent figure estimate in the recently released NCES Pulse data, consider the remainder, or the average daily non-attendance. Let’s call it the ADN-A. In 2016 and 2018, the ADN-A was about 6.5 to 6.8 percent, and in November 2023 it was about 10 percent. If that seems like a much bigger difference, it is—a difference of roughly 50 percent.

The NCES Pulse data are important, and I am glad the department is gathering the numbers. In fact, I hope they keep it up every quarter for the foreseeable future to keep tabs on the absenteeism problem. However, the seemingly rosy 90 percent figure should not allow educators, parents, journalists, or policymakers to take their eyes off of the ball. Cardona was right this week when he said this challenge takes an all hands on deck approach, and apparent good news should not let anyone’s attention waver.