Minnesota’s chronic absenteeism rate has more than doubled since 2017

The full impact of COVID and school closures on students is still being determined, but chronic absenteeism has certainly emerged as one of the biggest problems facing schools right now.

I’ve previously written how Minnesota performance on national tests is the worst in 30 years and the impact this will have on students’ lifetime incomes. But recovery efforts won’t mean much if students still aren’t back in the classroom.

Chronic absenteeism (when students miss 10 percent or more of the school year) isn’t a new problem, but the fact that the elevated rates of students chronically absent during COVID haven’t declined much is alarming, writes Nat Malkus with the American Enterprise Institute.

His latest paper shows that nationwide “in both the third of districts with the lowest achievement and also the third of districts with the highest rates of poverty, chronic absenteeism jumped 17 percentage points between 2019 and 2022: from 20 to 37 percent.”

Chronic absenteeism also varied by race, with rates increasing from 7 percent to 15 percent among Asian students, from 11 percent to 24 percent among white students, from 16 percent to 36 percent among Hispanic students, and from 18 percent to 39 percent among Black students. Rates were even worse for Hispanic and Black students in urban districts nationwide, at 41 percent and 46 percent, respectively. To say these numbers are troubling is an understatement.

Minnesota’s chronic absenteeism up 17 percentage points

In spring 2017, Minnesota’s chronic absenteeism rate was at 13 percent. Not the lowest among the states, but the same as the nationwide rate. It ticked up to 14 percent in 2018, held steady at 14 percent in 2019, inched up to 15 percent in 2020, and by spring 2021 was at 17 percent.

As of spring 2022 data, the most recently available for Malkus’s report, the state’s chronic absenteeism rate skyrocketed to 30 percent — that’s a 17 percentage point increase, the rate more than doubling, over a six-year period. This means that almost one third of Minnesota’s students were missing 10 percent or more of the 2021-2022 school year, or more than three and a half weeks of learning.

In the Minneapolis school district, the chronic absenteeism rate was 54 percent in 2022 (up from 21 percent in 2019). Other examples of school districts with striking increases in 2022 such that more than half of students were chronically absent include the Burnsville school district (51 percent), Onamia school district (63 percent), Pequot Lakes school district (54 percent), Barnum school district (55 percent, which is significantly higher from its rate of 6 percent in 2019), Bagley school district (52 percent), and Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (60 percent).

Even more affluent school districts have experienced spikes — Minnetonka went from a 16 percent chronic absenteeism rate in 2019 to 36 percent in 2022, Prior Lake-Savage from 11 percent to 20 percent, Edina from 9 percent to 17 percent, Wayzata from 8 percent to 24 percent.

“How can we expect and work toward minimizing learning loss with these levels of absenteeism?” Malkus continues. “How do we expect achievement gaps to decline in the face of these attendance disparities?”

Because tutoring or adding learning time to the academic calendar likely won’t have “a strong effect if students aren’t showing up to school in the first place,” Malkus suggests that school leaders consider setting, or resetting, “high expectations for the school community.” And parents “need to fulfill their moral and legal duty and make sure their children show up to school.”

Make it clear to your teachers, parents, and students that exceptional pandemic practices are over and that reestablishing regular attendance is job number one. Bring your teachers into the effort: No emails, texts, or central-office outreach will change habits as effectively as regular contact from teachers who know students and their families. Use carrots but don’t ignore sticks: Bring on incentives and supports but don’t tackle a challenge this big by shying away from discussing families’ and students’ obligations and the potential consequences for not meeting them.