Chronic Absenteeism in Arizona: A Description of K-8 Trends 2017-2021

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Overview

This statewide study of Arizona schools, co-developed by WestEd and the Helios Education Foundation, documents K–8 trends in student absences, which student groups and grade levels have the highest rates of chronic absence, and how rates compare across districts before the COVID-19 pandemic and during the pandemic. 

In Arizona, chronic absence is a school accountability measure that is defined as a student being absent from a given school for any reason (excused and unexcused) more than 10 percent of a school’s calendar year (e.g., 18 days for a typical 180-day school year that meets 5 days per week). 

Pre-pandemic, the rates of chronic absence were stable in Arizona at about 14 percent. During the pandemic, with the physical closure of school buildings in spring 2020, the chronic absence rates declined to 9 percent as schools stopped reporting attendance. This may or may not represent improved attendance for any individual student. In 2021, the state’s chronic absence rate exceeded pre-pandemic levels and was up to 22 percent. Compared to previous years, the average number of days absent in a given month increased after the outbreak of the pandemic and a higher percentage of students reached the cut-off for being identified as chronically absent earlier in the school year. 

An alternative definition of chronic absence that took into account the total days of absence across the different schools of attendance within a school year resulted in a modest 1 percentage point increase in the overall state’s chronic absence rate, but a much larger increase among students who experienced school mobility (about a 5-percentage point increase). 

Overall, as often documented in the literature, the percentage of chronically absent students was higher in the early elementary grades than the upper elementary grades but increased again across the middle school grades. 

An examination of the geography of chronic absence by district in Arizona showed that the chronic absence rates were high in rural districts in the northeast and northwest corners of Arizona and on the Navajo Nation or Hopi land. Some of these districts reported over 30 percent chronic absenteeism. In contrast, school districts in the center of the state generally reported lower percentages of chronically absent students. As a geographic region, the districts in the Phoenix metroplex generally had lower rates of chronic absence than the districts in the Tucson and Flagstaff areas. 

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