The results from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress rattled the education sector, pointing to learning loss in math and reading on a national scale during the pandemic. Pundits have tied the test score declines to prolonged school closures, student mental health issues and an easing of academic rigor in many schools.
But a new analysis by a former senior federal education researcher suggests another potential contributing factor: the extraordinary number of students who have missed substantial amounts of school. We know from state data that chronic absenteeism, frequently defined as missing 10 percent of the school year or roughly two days a month, has increased rapidly since the pandemic began, doubling in some states. And we know from research that students who are chronically absent are less likely to master reading by the end of third grade and more likely to drop out of high school.
We can’t know exactly how many students taking the NAEP were chronically absent. But each time the test is administered, students are asked how many days they missed in the previous month. Education researcher Alan Ginsburg, a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Policy and Program Studies, analyzed the results of that question from the past several years and found that the rate of low-income fourth-grade NAEP test-takers who reported missing three or more days the month before taking the NAEP climbed from 22 percent in 2015 to 41 percent in 2022.
For more affluent students, those who don’t qualify for free and reduced-price meals, the absenteeism rate in the month before taking the NAEP went from 15 to 29 percent in the same period. There were similar trends among eighth-grade test-takers, suggesting that many of the same forces affected attendance among elementary and middle school students.
Ginsburg found a correlation between missed days and lower NAEP scores: Fourth graders who said they missed three or more days in the previous month scored 17 points lower on the reading test than those who missed no days and 12 to 13 points lower than those missing one or two days, regardless of poverty level. Given that researchers suggest that 10 to 12 points is roughly equivalent to an academic year’s worth of learning, those are substantial differences. The test is graded on a scale from 0 to 500 with a score of 238 considered proficient in fourth-grade reading.
On the eighth-grade math test, low-income students who missed three or more days in the previous month scored 15 points lower than those with no absences and 10 points lower than those missing one or two days. For students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the gaps were 17 and 11 points, respectively. A score of 299 on the 0-500 scale is considered proficient in eighth-grade math.
The NAEP attendance question is a fairly crude metric, relying on students’ recollection of their attendance in a single month (though the students’ reports largely mirror state-reported increases in chronic absenteeism since the pandemic). And we can’t draw a straight line between attendance and the NAEP score declines; there are certainly other contributors.
But common sense and considerable research suggest that students perform better academically when they show up for school regularly. School districts looking to close the learning gaps that emerged during the pandemic would do well to invest in the sort of evidence-based strategies that can bring students back to school.
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