Reducing chronic absenteeism
in our schools


This data story examines the scope of chronic absenteeism in Massachusetts, how it affects student success, and evidence-based strategies to improve student attendance. School leaders across Massachusetts are using data to measure their own ongoing efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism. The story highlights one example of how data shows the interventions are working in the Lowell Public Schools.

Chart shows rates of chronic absence by  grade span between 2018 and 2023
Note. Figure details the percent of students chronically absent by grade span for each school year from 2018-19 through 2022-23. The data show increasing chronic absenteeism starting with the onset of the pandemic (dotted line). That year, the state collected attendance data only through March 2, 2020.

Key takeaways

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have missed far more days of school than in the past. A student is counted as chronically absent if they missed 10% of days enrolled in a school in any given year. Typically, this means the student missed at least 18 school days out of a 180-day school year.
  • In 2022-23, 22.2% of students were chronically absent. This is an improvement from 2021-22 (27.7%) but still much higher than the pre-pandemic baseline (12.9% in 2018-19).
  • All student groups had much higher rates of chronic absenteeism in 2022-23 compared to the pre-pandemic baseline, but some groups stand out with especially elevated rates:
    • Chronic absenteeism is highest in kindergarten and high school. It is lowest among students in grades 1-5.
    • Hispanic or Latino students are the most likely of any ethnic-racial group to be chronically absent (34.5% in 2022-23).
    • Asian students have the largest increase in chronic absenteeism from pre-pandemic rates of any ethnic-racial group, nearly doubling to 13.9% in 2022-23 compared with 7.6% in 2018-19. However, they have the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism of any student group.
    • English learners and students with disabilities have higher rates of chronic absenteeism than students overall.
    • There is no meaningful difference in chronic absenteeism by gender.
  • The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is taking steps to highlight this issue and support schools to improve attendance. DESE provides funding and guidance on evidence-based practices.

What is chronic absenteeism?

Massachusetts defines chronic absenteeism as missing at least 10% of the school year for any reason. Usually this means 18 absences out of a 180-day school year, but a student enrolled for only half the school year (90 days) would be counted chronically absent with 9 or more absences. Chronic absence does not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences, illness, obstacles such as lack of transportation, or truancy. Students need only miss two days of school per month to become chronically absent. The rate matters because chronic absenteeism is associated with lower student outcomes at every grade span.

Explore rates of chronic absenteeism by school

Select a school or district from the drop-down menu below to view trends in chronic absenteeism since 2018. Begin typing the name for a short list. Use the Student Group filter to compare any combination of categories of race/ethnicity, gender, English learner status, disabilities status, income, and more.

Why does attendance matter?

Missing school has consequences for academic achievement and long-term student outcomes.
Early grades: Research has found that attendance matters across every grade, including kindergarten. Students who were chronically absent in kindergarten had the lowest average academic performance among their classmates in first grade, with even lower performance for students in poverty who were chronically absent in kindergarten (Chang and Romero, 2008). 
In Massachusetts, students with attendance rates consistently above 95% in pre-kindergarten through grade 3 outperformed students with lower attendance rates during any year between pre-kindergarten and grade 3 on the grade 3 MCAS tests. (Wei, 2022)
Assessment results: Students who are chronically absent score lower on statewide assessments. In 2023, the percentage meeting or exceeding expectations on MCAS was more than 20 percentage points lower among students who were chronically absent compared to those who were not. Among chronically absent students in grades 3-8, one in four met or exceeded expectations on the ELA assessment, and one in five in Math. In grade 10, just over a third of chronically absent students met or exceeded expectations on the ELA assessment, while fewer than a quarter did in Math.
High school completion: In high school, being chronically absent is associated with higher rates of dropout and lower rates of on-time graduation. As early as 6th grade, chronic absenteeism is an early warning sign that a student is less likely to graduate high school (Baltimore Education Research Consortium, 2011).
Table shows difference in MCAS results between students with chronic absence and those without.
Chart shows percent of dropouts who are chronically absent
Nearly 90% of Massachusetts students who dropped out of school in 2021-22 were chronically absent that year. More than half of dropouts were chronically absent three years prior.
Chart shows chronic absenteeism rate for Hispanic or Latino students

Equity Lens

With a rate of 34.5% in 2023, Hispanic or Latino students experience the highest average rate of chronic absence in Massachusetts of any ethnic-racial group. Latinos in Massachusetts also face acute economic and opportunity gaps that shape their access to equitable education. High school outcomes show Hispanic or Latino students have lower four-year graduation rates (81.2% in 2022), lower college enrollment rates (38.5%), and lower rates of college persistence after two years (63.3%) among all racial/ethnic groups. The 2022 report Avancemos Ya! recommends greater support for English learners and increased access to Early College and community colleges.

Why is it a problem now?

Across the country, chronic absenteeism has dramatically increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. After two years of disrupted schooling in 2019-20 and 2020-21, schools have returned to in-person learning but attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Here in Massachusetts, the story is the same. Pre-pandemic, Massachusetts’ chronic absenteeism rate hovered around 13%, and even this relatively lower rate was cause for concern at the time. Chronic absenteeism has been tracked and used as an indicator in the Massachusetts accountability system since the rollout of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2017.
In 2020-21, when many schools were remote or hybrid, absenteeism rates increased. In 2021-22, schools fully reopened and chronic absenteeism for the year grew worse than ever before, reaching 27.7% and affecting more than 1 in 4 Massachusetts students. In 2022-23, attendance showed signs of improvement as the chronic absenteeism rate declined to 22.2% but remained much higher than the 13% baseline before the pandemic.
Since 2020-21, DESE has published attendance reports twice per year, one with data collected on March 1, and the other with data for the full school year.

What causes chronic absenteeism?

Addressing chronic absenteeism begins with understanding it. A number of factors, and often a combination of factors, can cause chronic absenteeism. They fall into four main categories (Attendance Works):
Aversions
Students avoid school because they are struggling academically or socially, experience an unwelcoming school climate, or have undiagnosed or unaddressed needs.
Barriers
Personal, family and societal conditions, such as illness, trauma, poverty, or community violence, prevent students from attending school.
Disengagement 
Students are bored, lack challenging or culturally responsive instruction, lack support, or need to work.
Misconceptions
Students and their families may lose track of the number of absences or do not understand why attendance matters.

What is Massachusetts doing about it?

DESE helps schools and districts use data to understand attendance trends and implement evidence-based supports to improve student attendance. The state has identified 70% of schools as attendance priority schools, those with rates of chronic absenteeism in 2023 that were higher than the 2019 statewide average for schools with the same grade span and did not decrease by least 50% between 2022 and 2023. Chronic absenteeism is one of the measures used in the state accountability system for schools and districts.
With an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to reducing chronic absenteeism, the state launched in January 2024 a multilingual ad campaign that includes a public service announcement featuring Education Secretary Dr. Patrick Tutwiler, billboards and transit ads, email, and social media messages.
DESE allocated $4 million to help districts reduce chronic absenteeism. So far, approximately 170 districts are receiving $10,000 and technical support in 2023-24 for one or more of the following strategies:
  • Tracking and monitoring of attendance data
  • Family engagement practices
  • Attendance academies for out-of-school time learning recovery
  • Implementation of evidence-based practices
DESE's Early Warning Indicator System (EWIS) includes reports on student attendance in order to help districts identify students at greatest risk of not meeting specific academic outcomes.

Attendance intervention in Lowell Public Schools

Some districts and schools have made a concerted effort to improve attendance and have seen results. Greenhalge Elementary School, part of the Lowell Public Schools, is one such example. Through a range of initiatives focused on relationship-building, Greenhalge lowered its chronic absenteeism rate by 21 percentage points in a single year and is on track to fully return to its pre-pandemic rates in the 2023-24 school year.
Chart shows spike and decline of chronic absence rates at Greenhalge Elementary School
Coming out of the pandemic in 2021-22, nearly half of the students at Greenhalge Elementary School were chronically absent. Many Greenhalge families experienced economic and housing instability, food and job insecurity, language and cultural barriers, a lack of transportation, and health concerns. The majority of the student population is Hispanic, and four out of 10 students are English learners – two student groups with some of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism statewide.
District staff analyzed attendance data and uncovered patterns in absenteeism. Nearly 10% of students were absent on Fridays, more than any other day of the week. Certain months, such as December and June, saw spikes in absences. The district used these patterns to plan interventions and grouped students into tiers of support based on attendance data.

Lowell Public Schools Data Dashboard

Snapshot from Lowell Public Schools data dashboard tracking patterns in attendance
The school restructured to add social workers and multilingual staff and shifted their approach from compliance to engagement. Now there is more focus on building relationships, checking in more often with families of students who are absent, and explaining why attendance matters. When a meeting is called to discuss a student’s attendance, parents or guardians are nearly always present now, up from about half the time in previous years. The school also hosts breakfast meetings to connect parents and help them coordinate transportation and care.
With federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding and a subsequent $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Greenhalge and six other Lowell Public Schools adopted the Community School model in 2022. This enabled the school to work with community partners to help address student and family needs and remove barriers to attendance, providing goods and services such as taxi service, laundry service, alarm clocks, food, and winter clothing, coordinating medical care and housing assistance, and awarding incentives for improved attendance to students and their families.
For the first quarter of 2023-24, the chronic absenteeism rate at Greenhalge dropped to 19% for grades 1-4, a positive sign that they could be on track for a return to pre-pandemic attendance levels.

What can schools and districts do?

A number of research-supported strategies have been shown to successfully improve attendance:
  • Tiered systems of support: This approach introduces strategies to improve attendance among all students, while providing individual support for students experiencing chronic absence, and intensive school and community services for students with higher levels of absence.
  • Home visits: Research on home visiting in Connecticut public schools found improved attendance rates by an average of 4 percentage points in the month following home visits in the spring of 2021 and nearly 15 percentage points six months later. The visits helped establish trusting relationships and connect families to learning opportunities outside of school time.
  • Success mentors: In New York City, chronically absent students were matched with a mentor, either from internal school staff or an external community partner, who worked one-on-one with students and families to address barriers to being in school. Attendance rates for mentees increased an average 5 percentage points, equivalent to two additional weeks in school per year, and mentees were 52% more likely to remain in school the following year.
  • School-family communication: Text messaging to parents reinforcing the benefits of attendance or noting the consequences for absence reduced chronic absenteeism rates by 12-18% among elementary schools in four large, urban districts. Letters and postcards with information on student absences showed some success in reducing the likelihood of chronic absenteeism in Philadelphia.


References

Heppen, J.B., Kurki, A., & Brown S. (2020). Can Texting Parents Improve Attendance in Elementary School? A Test of an Adaptive Messaging Strategy, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance
Chang, H. N. & Romero, M. (2008). Present, Engaged, and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, National Center for Children in Poverty
Chronic Absence: Root Causes (updated 2022). Attendance Works
FutureEd (2024). Tracking State Trends in Chronic Absenteeism, Georgetown University, McCourt School of Public Policy
Ginsburg, A., Jordan, P., & Chang, H.N. (2014). Absences Add Up: How School Attendance Influences Student Success, Attendance Works
Mattos, T., Granberry, P., & Agarwal, V. (2022). Avancemos Ya! Persistent Economic Challenges and Opportunities Facing Latinos in Massachusetts, Boston Indicators
Rogers, T. & Feller, A. (2018). Reducing Student Absences at Scale by Targeting Parents’ Misbeliefs, Nature Human Behaviour
Rogers, T., Duncan, T., Wolford, T., Ternovski, J., Subramanyam, S., & Reitano, A. (2017). A randomized experiment using absenteeism information to “nudge” attendance, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic
Stemler, S. E., Werblow, J., Brunner, E.J., Amado, A., et al. (2022).An Evaluation of theEffectiveness of Home Visits for Re-Engaging Students Who Were Chronically Absent in the Era of Covid-19, Center for Connecticut Education Research Collaboration
Wei, Wendy (2022). An Ecological Approach to Understanding the Predictors and Outcomes of Absenteeism in the Early Years. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
By Danielle Kane, March 22, 2024