Absenteeism surging in Oklahoma schools

Ray Carter | October 12, 2023

When public schools were shut down for COVID, proponents claimed any associated learning loss would be quickly overcome.

At the Sept. 14, 2020 meeting of the Deer Creek school board, 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson, who went on to become the Democratic nominee for state superintendent in 2022, urged officials to keep that district closed despite parent pleas to the contrary and dismissed concerns about student learning loss from extended online instruction.

“The wonderful teachers of Deer Creek will fill in any deficits of learning that they may accrue this year,” Nelson said.

But testing indicates that students across the state have yet to catch up, and a recent legislative study highlighted another downside of COVID school shutdowns: They are associated with a much higher level of chronic absenteeism after the pandemic.

A recent presentation given to lawmakers by Impact Tulsa bluntly noted, “Chronic absenteeism up dramatically since COVID.”

Delia Kimbrel, head of research and data strategy for Impact Tulsa, told lawmakers that average daily attendance (ADA) showed 94% of enrolled students were typically in Oklahoma classrooms in 2019.

But by 2022, schools with low ADA had just 80%—and sometimes even less—in attendance on any given day. At some schools, she said 30% of students were chronically absent.

“Attendance has been on a general decline,” Kimbrel said.

The students most likely to be chronically absent include racial minorities, students on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that indicates those students have learning challenges, low-income students, and those in the earliest grades, Kimbrel said.

OSDE records show Oklahoma schools reported an average daily membership (ADM) of 696,544 in the 2022-2023 school year. (ADM reflects student enrollment.)

If 20% of students are chronically absent statewide, that translates into 139,309 students routinely absent from Oklahoma schools.

However, OSDE records show that Oklahoma school districts reported having average daily attendance of 644,453, which is only 52,091 below enrollment, suggesting chronic absenteeism is concentrated in a handful of districts.

Even so, the data show that fewer students are showing up in school, and even those who attend are performing below their pre-COVID peers.

The results of 2022 state tests showed that Oklahoma students have begun to regain some academic ground lost during COVID disruptions but results on nearly all tests remain well below the pre-pandemic norm.

That was ground Oklahoma could not afford to lose since the majority of Oklahoma students failed to achieve proficiency in all grades and subjects tested even prior to COVID.

Each year, the state administers tests in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics in the third-through-eighth grades as well as grade 11, and administers tests in science in grades five, eight and 11. In 2022, the Oklahoma State Department of Education reported that 98 percent of Oklahoma’s public-school students took state tests.

The share of students testing proficient or better exceeded the pre-pandemic level in only two areas: 11th grade English Language Arts and 11th grade science.

On a third test, students had almost recovered all ground lost since COVID. On the fifth-grade science test, 38 percent of students were proficient or better in 2019 compared to 37 percent in 2022.

However, on the remaining 14 state tests, student results remained well below the pre-pandemic level.

For example, on ELA tests, 38 percent of third-grade students were proficient or better in 2019, compared to just 29 percent in 2022.

On several tests, only one-in-four (or fewer) students tested proficient in 2022.

Overall, a large majority of students in all grades and subjects tested scored below the proficiency level. Between 62 percent and 84 percent of students on all tests scored at the “basic” or “below basic” levels, which the Oklahoma State Department of Education reported means those students “may not be” or are definitely not “on track for college or career success.”

The continuance of significant learning loss in Oklahoma schools has occurred despite record levels of funding, including a massive infusion of federal cash to address COVID-related problems.

State Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, recently noted the state-appropriation funding increases provided to Oklahoma’s K-12 school system in recent years are unprecedented.

“It took the state 110 years to get to a budget of $2.3 billion appropriated for common ed,” Pugh said. “And I want all of my colleagues to hear this: It took us seven years to get to $3.97 (billion).”

Chronic absenteeism is a factor that impacts a school’s A-F grades on state report cards. As schools have lost track of a larger number of students following COVID, officials at more public schools are now pushing to have measurement of absenteeism removed from school-grade calculations.

Impact Tulsa is among those urging lawmakers to stop measuring chronic absenteeism in school report cards, even though Kimbrel acknowledged, “In our work, we’ve come to learn that school attendance is a fundamental component for student success.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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