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Nearly a quarter of Missouri students are chronically absent as school attendance rates drop

Students inside an elementary school classroom sit with their back to the camera. A teacher sits at the head of the class talking to them.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Missouri's department of education found statewide attendance rates have declined by 10% since 2019, creating learning gaps for individual students and entire classes.

Missouri's education department has released new performance data finding chronic absenteeism remains a problem for many schools. Attendance rates have dropped in Missouri by 10% since 2019, and they're especially low for Black students.

Almost one-fourth of Missouri students are considered chronically absentee — more evidence that schools are struggling to raise attendance rates and student performance to where they were before the COVID pandemic.

Attendance is one of the biggest areas for concern identified in scores released Monday by Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It’s the second report generated under a new system that’s used to review and accredit school districts.

In the 2022-2023 school year, 76.6% of Missouri students attended class at least 90% of the time. Missing more than 10% of school days is the benchmark for chronic absenteeism.

The latest performance data can only be compared to the previous year’s scores, and won’t be used to change a district’s accreditation status until after the 2023-2024 school year is completed. That’s when three full years of data will be available.

Student performance makes up the majority of a school district’s overall score. However, Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said in a press conference that it’s challenging to improve academics when absenteeism is still an issue.

“Students must be present to learn,” Vandeven said. “Regular attendance is sometimes out of the student's own control, but is a student's success factor and a workforce readiness expectation.”

Vandeven said attendance rates have declined for Missouri schools by 10% since 2019. She said the state’s Black students saw the most significant drop — 40% were reported as chronically absent.

“Some of these attendance issues could be related to the health and well being of our students,” Vandeven said. “Teachers and students alike report experiencing a paralleled stress, fatigue and mental health issues, and it's clear that a number of factors contribute.”

School districts can earn up to four points for attendance on the performance report. To earn the full four points, a school needs at least 90% attendance; below 79.9% attendance will earn a school zero points.

Nearly 17% of Missouri districts received that lowest ranking on their scorecard. One of those was Fort Osage School District in Jackson County, where about 31% of students are chronically absentee.

Emily Cross, Fort Osage’s assistant superintendent for education services, said they’re trying to figure out what they can do to ensure students surpass the 90% attendance mark.

“We know that we need students in school in order for us to help them achieve their goals and reach their potential,” Cross said. “Every building has a campaign of sorts to support not only increasing attendance, but also knowledge for families on why it's important.”

Cross said some of these campaigns include district liaisons who work to meet parents where they are, since students miss class for a variety of reasons — including finances, housing instability, illness, depression or bullying.

An estimated 6.5 million additional students became chronically absent after the pandemic, according to data compiled by Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee in partnership with the Associated Press.

To keep kids at school, the Fort Osage district is also providing more mental health resources within their buildings so students don’t have to check out in order to receive therapy services.

“There's a lot of reteaching that needs to happen and bringing kids up to speed on what was missed,” Cross said. “Some students who are chronically absent, you can start to see those gaps in their learning as they move throughout the grade levels.”

Cross said they’ve begun to see an increase in attendance this year that she hopes will be reflected in the next batch of performance data.

Monday’s annual report did contain some cause for celebration. Cross said that Fort Osage showed significant growth in literacy, after the district increased its reading support by providing more students with one-on-one or small groups interventions.

Cross said the district is also providing teachers with more resources to help with learning gaps like vocabulary, which came as a result of students not having as many conversations or interactions with others during the pandemic.

The state’s new system puts more weight on how a school district’s students perform over time, instead of solely relying on academic performance. Vandeven said the department anticipated the change having a favorable impact for students.

Still, this year’s distribution of performance scores is similar to the last, with more than 100 districts out of 552 ranked in the provisionally accredited or unaccredited score range.

Missouri education officials said earlier this year that the lower performance scores are a result of pandemic learning loss and a more stringent evaluation system.

Vandeven cautioned against making assumptions based on just the last two years of data. School districts have another year before the state will use these results to determine districts’ accreditation status.

Fort Osage scored within the fully-accredited range this time, but Cross said they’re still working on improving.

“Every building is creating goals that can contribute for an increase in points in different areas, whether that be achievement, attendance or growth,” Cross said. “We're happy with where we are, but we know that we can improve.”

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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