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K-12 Truancy Rates Soar
Post-pandemic, U.S. truancy rates remain elevated. Over one-quarter of students in K-12 public schools missed 10% or more of the 2021-22 school year.
According to a recent analysis of public school attendance, chronic absenteeism during the 2021-22 school year roughly doubled since just before the pandemic. In 2018-19, 14.8% of students missed at least 10% of the school year, or around 18 days. In 2021-22, that share rose +13.5 percentage points to 28.3%.
Compared to 2018-19, every state recorded a rise in absenteeism. And eight states more than doubled their pre-pandemic rates. The largest increases were in Arkansas (+20 percentage points), Arizona (+21 pp), and New Mexico (+22 pp).
So what’s behind this rise?
Since we are talking about 2021-22, we might assume that much of the increase was due to Covid-19 and schools shutting down. But this explanation falls flat: Schools had largely recovered from the pandemic by 2022. Covid-19 infection rates were low among youth, and those who did catch the virus that year (the new variant was Omicron) were typically asymmetric. Moreover, by spring 2022, nearly all schools (98%) offered in-person learning.
What’s more, anecdotal reports suggest that truancy hasn’t declined much since then. While we have final 2022-23 data from only two states—Connecticut and Massachusetts—both states recorded only modest YoY declines (three percentage points). At this rate, it won’t be until 2026-27 until these states’ truancy rates are back to where they were before the pandemic. We will be looking closely to the final 2022-23 numbers in other states as soon as they are released.
We don’t know exactly what is keeping absenteeism elevated. But we can make some good guesses. We know that truancy is positively correlated with emotional distress (among children); economic hardship, transportation issues, and fears about bullying and safety (among parents), and demoralization (among teachers and school administrators). Arguably, all of these drivers have shifted up a gear since the pandemic began.
Indicators of depression, anxiety, and stress among children, for example, have surged since the pandemic—signaling that some students feel they can’t cope with school. (See “New Public Health Advisory on Teen Mental Health” and “Homelanders: In Mental Distress but Well-Behaved.”) Protective parents, now less likely to receive support from overwhelmed state social services or even get school buses to arrive on time, may sense that keeping kids at home is their best option. K-12 teachers, meanwhile, are reporting by far the highest level of burnout of any profession, even higher than that of healthcare workers. (See “Which Industries Report the Highest Levels of Burnout?” and “Is a Teacher Shortage Imminent?”) Teachers suffering from low morale won’t make many families eager to get their kids back to school now that the pandemic is over.
It could also be that parental expectations have changed. Before the pandemic, families simply assumed that children always needed to be at school. Any absence was subject to close official scrutiny. During the pandemic, that changed. Families got used to kids who were not in school—and to schools that were often too overwhelmed by the pandemic to know or to follow up. Along the way, many parents got used to the closeness and convenience of life at home and a few, no doubt, got used to not caring where their kids were. Now that the pandemic is over, schools expect that old habits will effortlessly return. That may be no more realistic than it was for employers to expect that all workers would effortlessly come back to their offices.
A benign reading of these new family habits would be to suppose that most of the missing children are getting an adequate education through alternative means like online coursework and homeschooling. There is probably some truth to this. Since the pandemic, enrollment in private schools and homeschooling has surged. Also, a much larger share of public schools (33% in the spring of 2022) are offering remote learning as an alternative to in-class learning. Some parents have discovered that their kids are happier and learn faster in an online academy. It is certainly plausible that, in some public schools, administrators are counting some students as “truant” even though they are getting a legitimate education elsewhere.
A more likely reading, unfortunately, is that most of the missing children are not getting educated at all—and that school officials, juvenile courts, and social service agencies are lagging way behind in their efforts to get them back in school. Truancy enforcement requires a long chain of events: Schools start by reaching out repeatedly to parents; then juvenile courts are notified; then, typically, both parents and social services are notified; finally, if nothing else works, parents can be fined and in rare cases jailed. If any of these links become overwhelmed and backlogged (as so many local juvenile courts and social service teams have been since the pandemic), the whole system stops.
What’s the best evidence that rising truancy does indeed mean fewer kids are getting educated? We need only turn to the gold standard for tracking long-term K-12 achievement trends: the national exams designed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Between 2020 and 2023, according to the NAEP’s most recent publication, reading test scores for 13-year-olds declined by -4 points and math by -9 points. These represent the steepest 3-year score declines in both subjects in the history of the exam going back to 1973. Among all 13-year-olds tested, self-reported absences of more than five days in a month were up sharply (doubling, in fact, since 2020). And students with high absenteeism were heavily represented among the lowest quintile of test-takers, whose average score declined much more steeply since 2020 than the average score of the highest quintile.
In recent months, it seems that state and local governments are at last rousing themselves to take action. Some regions plan to reduce absenteeism through more punitive enforcement. Texas is considering laws to increase fines on parents. And Louisiana has a proposed bill to revoke absent teens' driver's licenses. Other regions are taking gentler approaches. School districts in Los Angeles County are expanding the number of home wellness visits. Others are increasing their budget for mental health care. Most education experts recommend interventions over punitive approaches—if only because few parents actually want their children to remain unschooled. Either way, something has to change to get these kids back in the classroom.
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