In addition to pandemic-era declines in math and reading scores, fewer students across the state are enrolling in college after graduation and the number of students regularly absent from school has risen drastically, according to new data from the state Department of Education.
The released data is a series of 12 metrics that include English, math and science performance, the rate at which students are learning, physical fitness, attendance, access to art programs, graduation rates and the number of graduating seniors going on to college.
“The system moves far beyond test scores and looks at other indicators to ensure we’re looking at other elements that play a huge role in the student’s overall success in school,” said Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker at a press conference Thursday.
The numbers reveal that chronic absenteeism, or the number of students missing more than 18 days in a single school year, more than doubled compared to before the pandemic — from about 1 in 10 students in 2018-19 to about 24 percent of students in 2021-22.
In addition, one in three “high needs” students — English learners, special education students and low-income students — were chronically absent last year.
Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer with the state’s Department of Education, said that the increase in chronic absences is in part due to ongoing quarantine restrictions for students who have tested positive for COVID. But he also said that students may be struggling to get back into the regular routine of coming to school each day after nearly two years of disruption.
“I think what the pandemic also did is, it affected the general sort of culture of getting up in the morning, getting on the bus and going to school,” said Gopalakrishnan. “It’s getting back to that norm of … ‘School is the place where we come, we meet our neighbors and friends — and we love it.’”
Gopalakrishnan said that the state already had chronic absentee data for the months of September and October of this school year, which he said had improved compared to last year, although it wasn’t yet back to pre-pandemic levels. He said this continuing absenteeism may also be due to respiratory viruses and other illnesses keeping children out of school.
John Frassenelli, director of the Bureau of Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education with the Department of Education, said that the state has trained about 200 people in various communities to conduct home visits to families whose children weren’t attending school regularly. These “credible messengers,” he said, were able to connect families to resources if they needed economic help. He said the program has been “wildly successful” in the 10 participating school districts.
Frassenelli said districts also meet regularly to discuss attendance and strategies to address it. Some of the critical factors, he said, include creating a welcoming environment in schools, making sure that students are connecting to teachers and having counselors and social workers present.
“There was certainly a lot of school avoidance happening during the pandemic for anxiety and depression and lack of socialization,” Frassenelli pointed out.
Free meals, he said, are also critical.
“We know that school breakfast pays dividends. It helps students … retain complicated information. It helps with behavior issues in school,” he said. “Schools are the hub to support those students. And we are working in all of these areas to make sure that those students are in school every day.”
Catching up and college preparedness
Overall, changes in academic performance varied by district and grade. Statewide, 64.2 percent of students were proficient in English last year, a drop of about 3.5 percent from pre-pandemic. Proficiency in math dropped from 58 percent to about 54 percent of students.
At the same time, the data showed that student rates of learning have increased, meaning that they are catching up. But is that growth enough to make up for the loss in learning that young people suffered during the pandemic?
According to Gopalakrishnan, the answer depends on the grade level.
“In the elementary grades, the recovery is faster,” said Gopalakrishnan. “In the middle school grades, even before the pandemic, the growth in middle school was always a challenge and it remains more of a challenge in the middle school grades.”
Gopalakrishnan said the state is working on a model curriculum for middle school mathematics, an area that was particularly affected by the pandemic.
Fewer ninth graders are on track to graduate high school in four years — a trend that Gopalakrishnan said can partially be explained by an increase in credit requirements for graduating high schoolers. The year before the pandemic, 88 percent of freshmen were on track to graduate. Last year, that number was 82.7 percent.
“We’re going to be watching the kids who entered ninth grade during the pandemic,” said Gopalakrishnan. “We’ve got to watch those cohorts really closely in high school to make sure that they catch back up.”
For low-income students, college enrollment dropped substantially — from about 58 percent to 51 percent from 2018-19 to 2021-22 — according to the data.
“With respect to postsecondary entrance — yes, it is concerning,” said Gopalakrishnan. “So the way to counteract that is to, you know, make college accessible for those families, partly through the programming that we offer, so that it’s not just seen as ‘just for some’ —- especially when you’re first-generation.”
The state is encouraging students to apply for federal loans through the FAFSA program.
“FAFSA is huge because Connecticut … we are the state that has free community college for everyone. No income requirements, free community college for everyone,” said Gopalakrishnan. “One of the things you need is FAFSA. You’ve got to complete the FAFSA, because they want to make sure that if there are federal resources, we use those first.”
According to the data, 41.5 percent of all 11th and 12th graders meet at least one of the district’s six “benchmarks” showing that they are ready to begin college. These include performance on SAT, ACT AP and IB exams, as well as the number of students taking and passing college courses. Just over half of juniors and seniors who identify as White meet one of those benchmarks, compared to about 19 percent of Black students and 21.5 percent of Latino students.
Gopalakrishnan said the state was encouraging students to take advantage of early college courses that are offered through UConn and the state colleges and universities, as well as private colleges, which can both help students prepare for college and help families struggling to afford
“Not only does this give them a leg up when they graduate high school, it also saves a ton of money,” said Gopalakrishnan. “It’s common sense for families because they start college sometimes with half a semester of credits under their belt.”
Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said that next week, the department will be hosting an interactive call to show parents how to use the data to understand how their own children’s school is performing.
“This is a call to action for all of us to look strategically at these data results and continue to develop new collaborations on the best path,” she said.