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K-12 students learned a lot last year, but they're still missing too much school

From 2022-2023, chronic absenteeism declined in 33 of the 39 states AEI looked at. But it was still a persistent problem: In a handful of places, including Nevada, Washington, D.C., Michigan, New Mexico and Oregon, roughly 1 in 3 students – or more – were chronically absent.
LA Johnson
/
NPR
From 2022-2023, chronic absenteeism declined in 33 of the 39 states AEI looked at. But it was still a persistent problem: In a handful of places, including Nevada, Washington, D.C., Michigan, New Mexico and Oregon, roughly 1 in 3 students – or more – were chronically absent.

It's going to take aggressive interventions to repair the pandemic's destructive impact on kids' schooling.

That's the takeaway of two big new studies that look at how America's K-12 students are doing. There's some good news in this new research, to be sure – but there's still a lot of work to do on both student achievement and absenteeism. Here's what to know:

1. Students are starting to make up for missed learning

From spring 2022 to spring 2023, students made important learning gains, making up for about one-third of the learning they had missed in math and a quarter of the learning they had missed in reading during the pandemic.

That's according to the newly updated Education Recovery Scorecard, a co-production of Harvard University's Center for Education Policy Research and The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University.

The report says, "Students learned 117 percent in math and 108 percent in reading of what they would typically have learned in a pre-pandemic school year."

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Stanford professor Sean Reardon said that's surprisingly good news: "A third or a quarter might not sound like a lot, but you have to realize the losses from 2019 to 2022 were historically large."

When the same team of researchers did a similar review last year, they found that, by spring of 2022, the average third- through eighth-grader had missed half a grade level in math and a third of a grade level in reading. So, the fact that students are now making up ground is a good sign.

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These results do come with a few caveats, including that the researchers were only able to review data and draw their conclusions from 30 states this year.

2. Despite that progress, very few states are back to pre-pandemic learning levels

The Harvard and Stanford study of student learning includes one sobering sentence: "Alabama is the only state where average student achievement exceeds pre-pandemic levels in math." And average achievement in reading has surpassed pre-pandemic levels in just three of the states they studied: Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi. Every other state for which they had data has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels in math and reading.

"Many schools made strong gains last year, but most districts are still working hard just to reach pre-pandemic achievement levels," said Harvard's Thomas Kane, one of the learning study's co-authors.

3. Chronic absenteeism also improved in many places ... slightly

The rate of chronic absenteeism – the percentage of students who miss 10% or more of a school year – declined from 2022 to 2023. That's according to research by Nat Malkus at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He found chronic absenteeism declined in 33 of the 39 states he studied.

Yes, "the differences were relatively small," Malkus writes, but it's improvement nonetheless: "the average chronic absenteeism rate across these states in 2023 was 26 percent, down from 28 percent for the same 39 states in 2022."

Glass half-full: Things aren't getting worse.

4. But, again, chronic absenteeism is still high

Malkus found chronic absenteeism was at 26% in 2023. Before the pandemic, in 2019, those same states reported a rate of 15%. That adds some painful context to the "good news" two-point decline in absenteeism from 2022 to 2023. Sure, it's down, but it's still so much higher than it was and should be.

Think of it this way: In 2023, roughly 1 student out of 4 was still chronically absent across the school year.

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In a handful of places, including Nevada, Washington, D.C., Michigan, New Mexico and Oregon, roughly 1 in 3 students – or more – were chronically absent. That's a crisis.

Research shows a strong connection between absenteeism and all kinds of negative consequences for students, including an increased likelihood of dropping out of school.

Chronic absenteeism also hurts the students who don't miss school. That's because, as the learning study's authors point out, when absent students return, they require extra attention and "make it hard for teachers to keep the whole class moving."

5. Poverty matters (as always)

Both the learning and the chronic absenteeism studies capture the headwinds that constantly buffet children in poverty.

"No one wants poor children to foot the bill for the pandemic," said Harvard's Kane, "but that is the path that most states are on."

On learning: Reardon told NPR "the pandemic really exacerbated inequality between students in high-poverty and low-poverty districts and students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds."

In 2023, students' academic recovery was relatively strong across groups, which is good – but it means "the inequality that was widened during the pandemic hasn't gotten smaller, and in some places it's actually gotten larger," Reardon told NPR.

In fact, the report says, "in most states, achievement gaps between rich and poor districts are even wider now than they were before the pandemic." The learning study singles out Massachusetts and Michigan as the states where those gaps in math and reading achievement widened the most between poor and non-poor students.

Similarly, Malkus, at AEI, found that, between 2019 and 2022, rates of chronic absenteeism rose much more in high-poverty districts (up from 20% to 37%) than in low-poverty districts (up from 12% to 23%).

"Chronic absenteeism has increased the most for disadvantaged students," Malkus writes, "those who also experienced the greatest learning losses during the pandemic and can least afford the harms that come with chronic absenteeism."

6. Families must play an important role in learning recovery

Both studies acknowledge that families must play an important role in helping students – and schools – find a healthy, post-pandemic normal. The problem is, surveys show parents and guardiansoften underestimate the pandemic's toll on their children's learning. "Parents cannot advocate effectively for their children's future if they are misinformed," says the learning study.

To combat this, the learning researchers propose that districts be required to inform parents if their child is below grade-level in math or English. Those parents could then enroll their students in summer learning, tutoring and after-school programs, all of which have benefitted from federal COVID relief dollars. That funding is set to expire this fall, and some of these learning recovery opportunities may dry up, so the clock is ticking.

7. There's a "culture problem" around chronic absenteeism

Reducing chronic absenteeism, Malkus says, will also depend on families.

"This is a culture problem," Malkus tells NPR. "And in schools and in communities, culture eats policy for breakfast every day."

By "culture problem," Malkus is talking about how families perceive the importance of daily attendance relative to other challenges in their lives. He says some parents seem more inclined now to let their students miss school for various reasons, perhaps not realizing the links between absenteeism and negative, downstream consequences.

"Look, the patterns and routines of going to school were disrupted and to some degree eroded during the pandemic," Malkus says. "And I don't think we've had a decisive turn back that we need to have, to turn this kind of behavior around, and it's going to stay with students until that culture changes."

How do you do that? Malkus points to some low-cost options — like texting or email campaigns to increase parental involvement and encourage kids to get back in school – but says these, alone, aren't "up to the scale of what we're facing now."

Higher-cost options for schools to consider could include door-knocking campaigns, sending staff on student home-visits and requiring that families of chronically absent students meet in-person with school staff.

The learning study goes one step further: "Elected officials, employers, and community leaders should launch public awareness campaigns and other initiatives to lower student absenteeism." Because, after all, students can't make up for the learning they missed during the pandemic if they don't consistently attend school now.

What both of these studies make clear is there is no one solution that will solve these problems, and success will require further investment, aggressive intervention and patience.

Malkus says, even the high-cost, high-return options will likely only drive down chronic absenteeism by about four percentage points. A big win, he says, "but four percentage points against 26% isn't going to get us where we need to go."

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson and Aly Hurt

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.