Widespread increases in chronic absenteeism between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years are large enough that they could have substantially contributed to declines in post-pandemic test scores, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
The agency, which advises the president on economic policy based on data and research, partnered with the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics to analyze latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which saw steep and worrisome declines in both math and reading for 4th and 8th graders.
The results, announced Wednesday in a White House blog post, show that even after considering other changes that could have contributed to score declines, "the observed association between absenteeism and test scores is large enough" to account for 16-27% of the overall test score declines in math and 36-45% of the declines in reading.
The White House warned some caution in interpreting the results, considering other underlying factors could account for both the increases in student absenteeism and the declines in performance, like declining mental and physical health, familial responsibilities or other demands on students’ mental and physical resources.
While students' performance on state-administered test scores in the past two school years "show some early signs of rebounding from the major disruptions of the pandemic," the White House warned that pandemic recovery "requires that they are present in schools."
"Given the magnitude of test score declines and extent of chronic absenteeism, pandemic recovery efforts require an 'all-hands-on-deck' response," said the blog post.
Past research has shown performance on standardized tests can take a hit from school absences.
The percentage of chronically absent public school students nearly doubled from 15% in the 2018-19 school year to around 30% in 2021-22, following the pandemic, according to a recent study that collected administrative data from 40 states and the District of Columbia. The data accounts for over 92% of K-12 public school students in the United States.
"These large increases in absenteeism are widespread: every state for which data were available in this study saw significant increases in rates of chronic absenteeism between the 2018-2019 and 2021-2022 school years," according to the blog post.
The announcement that absenteeism contributed to declines in NAEP scores comes just days after NCES shared that researchers found a link between the two.
The White House announcement confirms that declines in reading scores for grades 4 and 8 had an especially pronounced association with rising rates of absenteeism, while math scores for 8th graders appeared to have lower association with absenteeism rates.
It also comes on the same day as an Education Department announcement including initiatives to bolster state and district efforts to tackle absenteeism. The department cited evidence-based practices to drive attendance increases, like home-visiting and texting parents.
It also said it would “hold States accountable for ensuring they fulfill commitments they have made to collect chronic absenteeism data and monitor States on the interventions they use" to help districts tackle the issue.