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Chronic absenteeism contributing to Missouri’s stagnant student test scores

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(The Center Square) – Nearly one in four Missouri students are absent from school more than 10% of the school year, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Chronic absenteeism, particularly when you look at the various groups that are impacted by that, will take the state coming together on that issue,” Margie Vandeven, commissioner of department, said during a media briefing earlier this month when presenting the performance ratings of approximately 550 school districts and charter schools.

Scores of Missouri’s school districts showed little improvement as the ratings measure several areas. Teacher recruitment and retention along with absenteeism were mentioned as the primary areas needing attention during the upcoming legislative session.

More than 90 school districts didn’t receive any ratings points for student attendance, which required a rating of 80% attendance. Another 120 school districts received the minimum rating for 80% to 84.9% attendance.

“Students must be present to learn,” Vandeven said. “Regular attendance is sometimes out of the student’s own control, but it is a student success factor and workforce readiness expectation. Declining attendance is a concern in Missouri schools and has a magnified impact, particularly on our lowest-performing students.”

Missouri’s school attendance rate hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. Statewide, attendance is down 10% from 2019 with only 76.6% of students meeting the 90% attendance level.

“This is a root-cause challenge that our schools cannot solve alone,” Vandeven said. “We must work with our local communities and statewide leaders to help address chronic absenteeism.”

Vandeven said 60% of Black students meet the 90% attendance threshold, a decline of 18% from last year. Students who are English language learners had a 40% attendance rate.

“Some of this shows that the pandemic was really hard on relationship building and engagement in the schools,” Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, said in an interview with The Center Square. “This was partly because school became so unpredictable during the pandemic. It creates classroom churn as chronic absence affects everyone.”

Attendance Works is a nonprofit focused on solving attendance problems throughout the nation. Chang said Missouri’s laws linking school funding to attendance helps place a focus on the issue, but the problem is complex and won’t be immediately solved.

“The pandemic caused an erosion of positive conditions for learning,” Chang said. “In particular, creating a sense of belonging, connection and support will help. If you trust the teacher, the parents and students will feel like they belong. But we can’t take that relationship for granted.”

Chang said blaming children and families for poor attendance and starting with an assumption they don’t care about education won’t be helpful.

“If you call an attendance meeting, no parent will come because they think they’re going to be yelled at,” Chang said. “Instead, we’ve found it’s better to reach out to families, find out how things are going and what issues they’re dealing with.”

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