More than one in five students in Massachusetts are chronically absent from school, state officials said, a number they say has remained persistently troubling since the pandemic began in 2020.
State officials said Tuesday that they will begin composing recommendations to help districts improve attendance, pointing out that chronic absenteeism is tied to lower academic performance.
"That works out to be somewhere around 180,000, close to 200,000 students,” who are chronically absent in Massachusetts, Rob Curtin, the state's director of education data, told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday. “If you think about it, each one of those students has generally missed at least 18 days of school. In total, that’s about four million days of school missed by these students.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 13% of students were considered chronically absent. And while the numbers have declined, the chronic absenteeism rate remains elevated at 22% of students.
The chronic absenteeism rate doubled among elementary school students, jumping from 10% in 2019 to 20% in 2023, Curtin said. The rate for high school students has increased from 23% in 2019 to 30%.
Curtin said state data showed that students who are chronically absent do not score as high on the MCAS as students with steady attendance, citing English Language Arts scores.
“The average scaled score for those that were not chronically absent, is 96. That means if you are not chronically absent, those students on average, are almost meeting expectations on the grade three ELA MCAS test,” he said. “For those students that are chronically absent, that number comes down to 83. You're looking at a 13 point difference, which is close to half an achievement level.”
Curtin adds that only one in four students who are chronically absent in grades three through eight is meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations.
Those diminished outcomes have led the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to consider putting more pressure on districts with high absenteeism to get students back to school.
“We are looking to draw attention to what we think is a critical problem,” commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley told the board. “We're saying that if we truly believe that we have a severe problem and the impact is undeniable, that it's important that the accountability system reflect that.”
Curtin said the state is also discussing options like offering seed funding to districts that would help them communicate directly with families of chronically absent students to help bring them back.
The education board's Accountability and Assistance Advisory Committee will meet on Dec. 6 to begin discussing official recommendations.