Graduation Rate Up, Chronic Absenteeism Spikes in California Public Schools

The chronic absenteeism rate increased from 14.3% in 2020–2021 to 30% in 2021–2022.
Empty School Desks in Classroom
Photo: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

(The Center Square) – The high school graduation rate recently hit an all-time high in California, new data shows.

The California School Dashboard, restarted for the first time since 2019, went live on Thursday this week. It showed that the state’s four- and five-year high school graduation rates hit all-time highs in 2021–22, while the state’s chronic absenteeism rate followed the same trends as other states, according to a press release from the California Department of Education’s office. 

The data showed that the state’s four-year high school graduation rate climbed to 87% in the 2021-2022 school year, up from 83.6% in 2020–2021. 

However, in the same stretch, the state’s chronic absenteeism rate skyrocketed. California defines chronic absenteeism as students missing 10% of the days they were enrolled for any reason; the rate increased from 14.3% in 2020–2021 to 30% in 2021–2022. However, the state’s Department of Education notes that this surge was normal due to the coronavirus pandemic and that states like Florida, Ohio, and Michigan had rates exceeding 30%.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond and the California Department of Education (CDE) are trying to find ways to reduce chronic absenteeism, according to the Department.

The Department notes that one issue may have been the lack of students vaccinated against coronavirus since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) approved the coronavirus vaccine for five- to 11-year-olds in November 2021. It also says the booster wasn’t approved for children in that age range until October 2022.

“In response to higher absenteeism rates and other challenges, many local schools and districts launched attendance campaigns, practices, and policies,” the California Department of Education press release said. “Last spring, Superintendent Thurmond honored six school attendance review boards (SARBs) for exemplary practices to reduce chronic absenteeism and improve student attendance.”

It said that these programs are in addition to the $23.8 billion California extra that the state put in its state budget in hopes of combatting learning loss. 

Here are what those investments include, according to the state’s Department of Education:

  • The California $4.7 billion Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health: All young people ages zero to twenty-five will have ready access to mental health supports both inside and outside of school.
  • Universal free meals: All students, regardless of income, have access to two free school meals per day—up to 12 million meals per day statewide.
  • Expanded learning time: Elementary school students from low-income households, foster youth, and English Learners will have access to enrichment programs year-round and nine hours per day. At full scale in 2025, the $4 billion-per-year effort will serve an additional 1.5 million students per year.
  • The Community Schools Partnership Program: Roughly one out of every three schools in California will receive $4.1 billion to focus more on student and parent engagement, expanded access to mental health supports, and wraparound services.

Superintendent Thurmond and the CDE will continue hosting the Learning Acceleration Webinar series. 

The initial webinar event called “Learning Acceleration” featured local educational agencies and other education partners, “sharing tools and strategies to support student recovery and learning acceleration.” The CDE hosted it in October. 

Other webinar events they have hosted included the Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant on November 10 and Learning Acceleration Webinar: Mathematics on December 14. 

Additionally, CDE’s new webinar series on student attendance will begin on January 18. 

“Each webinar will explore how chronic absence can be woven into a key area of existing work and will include the voices of practitioners offering concrete examples of how they combat chronic absence in their own schools and communities,” according to the release.

Tom Joyce
Tom Joyce is a contributor for The Center Square.

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