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The Effects of Absenteeism on Academic and Social-Emotional Outcomes: Lessons for COVID-19

By Lucrecia Santibañez and Cassandra Guarino
Empty desks in a classroom

A study that adds to the growing evidence on the potentially negative impact the pandemic has had on student development across many different subgroups.


Many school systems were already dealing with the deep inequalities already present in their ranks when schools were forced to close in March 2020. The lack of in-person learning and now a new teaching model adversely affected an even larger group of students who were unable to fully engage in learning opportunities. As such, there has been a significant increase of absenteeism across all grades K–12. Using data from the CORE Districts in California, Professors Lucrecia Santibañez and Cassandra Guarino have researched the impact of increased absenteeism during the pandemic by analyzing how it has affected student outcomes in the recent past. Their study reveals that just a few weeks of missing school can result in lower test scores, particularly in math, have greater negative effects on middle school students, and can have detrimental effects on social emotional development, which affects future student success.  

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools around the nation to close physical campus es and shift to distance learning, existing inequalities were made starkly evident: low-poverty schools and students were able to engage in online participation quickly, while students of color in high-poverty schools and English learners (ELs) lagged behind. A report by the Los Angeles Unified School District that tracked the online engagement of secondary school students between March 16 and May 22, 2020, found that participation increased over time but never reached 100 percent. It was lower for students in particular subgroups such as low-income students, ELs, students with disabilities (SWDs), and homeless and foster youth (HL/FST). 

Given the considerable disruption and the deep inequalities already present in our nation’s school systems, districts are asking how much learning and social-emotional development has been lost due to the COVID-19 pan demic? In order to understand the impact of absenteeism on different student subgroups we analyzed data on K–12 students in the CORE Districts—a nonprofit collaborative of California school districts focused on data-driven school improvement—in California from school years 2014–15 to 2017–18 to understand (a) average patterns of absenteeism for all students and by subgroup as well as (b) the impact of being away from school on test scores and social-emotional learning (SEL). Results from this analysis suggest what the effects of COVID-19 could be on student outcomes.  


In a typical school year, the average number of absences for students in K–12 is 7.4 days. Absences vary by grade: elementary and middle school students spend about 7 days away from school in a regular school year, middle school and high school students are absent 6 and 9 days on average respectively. Absences are highest for Grades 10 through 12, with twelfth graders missing an average of 10.8 days. In a typical year, approximately 14 percent of students are absent 0 days, 65 percent are absent 1 to 10 days, 13 percent are absent 11 to 18 days, and 8 percent are absent 18 days or more—the level at which absenteeism is considered chronic. Persistent absence is more prevalent in grades 9–12 than in the earlier grades. About 7 per cent of students are absent from school 30 days or more in any given year, indicating that most chronically absent students are not in school for periods much longer than 18 days. 

Furthermore, when viewed in terms of race and ethnicity, Black students have the most absences of any group.  (Latinx students report high average absence rates in high school, but are one of the groups with the lowest average absenteeism rate in elementary and middle school. Asian American and Pacific Islander American students report the lowest number of absences of all racial and ethnic groups, across all grades.



One of the key findings in analyzing the data has been the impact of absentee ism on test scores. While there are some unobserved factors that can affect both absenteeism and student outcomes, we account for these that are specific to students and are persistent over time, by using a student fixed effect model that essentially isolates the effect of absences on outcomes for each individual student. The findings (our analyses are using Smarter Balanced Assessments, from Grades 3–8 and exclude Grade 11 because of data limitations) suggest absences have a clear negative effect on test scores. As absences increase, test scores decrease, and they do so more rapidly for mathematics than for ELA.

Absences also affect test scores differently depending on the school level.  In middle school, the data has shown that the grade lines have a steeper downward trend indicating that academic loss due to extended absences is felt more heavily by these students. In both elementary and middle school, the decline in test scores due to prolonged absenteeism is steeper in mathematics than ELA. 


When it comes to vulnerable students, absences have hurt their academic achievement more than they do other students. Predicted effects for students classified as FRPL (free or reduced-price lunch), EL, SWD, and HL/FST show that the negative effects of absenteeism are substantial for all students. Yet they are the most pronounced for students classified as FRPL, SWD, and HL/FST. For comparison, we include a category of “non-vulnerable” students (NONVUL)— that is, students who are not in one of those groups. These findings are concerning, given that in our data sample, 77 percent of the student population is classified as FRPL, 13 percent as SWD, and 4 percent as HL/FST. ELs (18 percent of sample students) are an exception, as they are less affected even than non-vulnerable students (19 percent). It should be noted that this group includes students who are considered long-term ELs, newcomer ELs, and ELs at various stages of English language development. More research is needed on variation within this subgroup to better understand these effects. 

Highlighted quote: “Their study reveals that just a few weeks of missing school can result in lower test scores, particularly in math, have greater negative effects on middle school students, and can have detrimental effects on social emotional development, which affects future student success.”


When SEL outcomes improve, so do test scores and behavioral outcomes.  Our study shows the effects of absenteeism on SEL outcomes using similar methods, but instead of ELA and mathematics test scores as outcome measures, we use SEL scale scores, standardized by year, for four different constructs: growth mindset (GM), social awareness (SA), self-efficacy (SE), and self-management (SM). SEL scores are based on self-reported surveys of students in Grades 4 through 12, and all of those grades are included in the analysis. Predicted effects on SEL constructs of absence at various levels show that as absences grow the expected (predict ed) SEL outcomes decrease. Absences, then, harm all four SEL constructs, with slight variations across them. After an initial slide, most constructs flatten out after 40 days. However, for SA the decline is more or less linear, indicating a steeper rate of loss as absenteeism accumulates. Absences hurt SEL development for all student subgroups and harm SA and SE more or less equally across subgroups. They also harm non-vulnerable students more than others in SM, and non-vulnerable students and SWDs slightly more than others in GM.

There are also differences in the impact of absences on SEL by grade level. While all constructs are negatively affected by absenteeism, middle school is the level at which extended absence from school has the strongest negative impact on social-emotional development, with SE and SA having the steepest slopes. At the elementary level, the most affected constructs are SE and SM.  At the high school level, the most affect ed construct is SA. Generally speaking, elementary and middle school are the levels during which extended absence from school has the strongest negative impact on social-emotional development. This is important because recent work using Project CORE data suggests that when social-emotional learning outcomes improve, so do test scores and behavioral outcomes—this is true across student subgroups and regardless of the baseline level of social emotional learning. 

IN CALIFORNIA, where average absenteeism is around 7 days during the regular school year, if students missed more than a few weeks of cumulative instruction during the pandemic, their test scores and SEL outcomes are likely to be badly affected. With school closures and remote-only instruction continuing through the 2020–21 school year it is not yet clear whether adaptations to online learning as a result of the experience of last spring will yield significantly greater engagement with instruction. These negative impacts are likely to hit students particularly hard in middle school and in mathematics. For SEL, the negative impact on elementary and middle schoolers of extended absences is significant. Indeed, students in certain subgroups, such as low-income students and SWDs, are likely to be the most affected. This study adds to the growing evidence on the potentially negative impact of COVID-19 on student development and the pandemic’s possible differential impacts by student subgroups and grade-level. Although COVID-19 presents unique circumstances, the evidence based on past experience suggests that many students will need in tense academic and social-emotional support to make up for lost time. 

Lucrecia Santibañez is an associate professor at UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies who focuses on policies to improve teaching and learning for low-income students, English learners, and other vulnerable populations. Her research has been funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the William T. Grant Foundation.  

Cassandra Guarino is a professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on teacher and school effectiveness, mobility effects, gender and education, and special needs students. Her research has been funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and numerous state agencies and foundations.