Kindergarten students listen to themselves read during a class assignment at Spreckels Elementary school in University City on April 24, 2023.
Kindergarten students listen to themselves read during a class assignment at Spreckels Elementary school in University City on April 24, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The pandemic rocked education, with district’s across the country choosing virtual instruction over in-person. But for San Diego Unified, last year’s test scores showed that two years of virtual learning had erased five years of gains the district’s students made on statewide tests. The latest test scores, released this week, show that despite small increases the district has a way to go before scores return to pre-pandemic levels.  

Small gains, big hole: The percentage of San Diego Unified students who met or exceeded English standards increased ever so slightly, from 53.1 percent to about 53.7 percent. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding math standards, which saw a larger drop-off from pre-pandemic years, increased a little more, from about 41.2 percent to about 43.1 percent.  

San Diego Unified has long fared better on tests than both the state as a whole, and the same was true this year. The district’s English and math scores were around seven and eight percent higher, respectively, than California as a whole. Still, the district’s scores remain significantly lower than they were before the pandemic, when 57 percent of students met state English standards and about 48 percent met math standards. 

Chronic absenteeism rates are down: One area where San Diego Unified has consistently underperformed the county and state is chronic absenteeism, which is when a student misses at least 10 percent of school days in a year. Rates exploded after the pandemic, leading educators to declare the issue a crisis. After all, not only are kids unable to learn when they miss class, schools and districts lose out on funds for every day a student misses. 

San Diego Unified saw an about 8 percent drop in the overall chronic absenteeism rate, and double digit drops for some of the demographics most effected. Still, the districts 26 percent rate of chronic absenteeism is more than double what it was before the pandemic, and slightly higher than state and county figures.  

Chronic absenteeism among the youngest students is particularly concerning for many educators. Despite these being the years when kids are building much of the foundational knowledge they will need throughout the rest of their academic careers, chronic absenteeism has long been at its highest in lower grades. From this year to last, San Diego Unified has decreased rates in kindergarten through third grade, though it’s still higher than the district’s overall rate. 

But one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed much is which schools have the highest level of chronic absenteeism. Ten of the 15 San Diego Unified schools with the highest rates were in top fifteen last year as well.  

And like test scores, missing school has long been correlated with income. The schools serving poorer communities tend to score lower on tests and tend to have kids who miss school more often. Nearly all of the schools with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism had a majority of students who qualified for free and reduced priced meals.  

Over the past couple of years, the district, individual schools and the County Office of Education have worked together to bring down the sky-high numbers. But San Diego Unified school board member Richard Barrera said he’s not sure the district can take credit for the decrease. 

While there are strategies San Diego Unified feels good about, Barrera said not clear to him that they are the key factors in the decrease, or whether rates are simply dropping because we’re getting further away from the pandemic. 

Part of that, he said, is because the district and educators more broadly don’t have a clear enough understanding of why the rates shot up so much in the first place, especially since that many of the factors often cited as drivers of chronic absenteeism existed before the pandemic. 

“I don’t think that we know enough to know what drove the chronic absenteeism rate so high, and I also don’t think we know enough to know what’s bringing it back down,” Barrera said. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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  1. I am shocked that anyone — other than a teachers’ union rep — would think that having 43 percent of students incompetent in English and having 52 percent incompetent in math are goals to seek. WOW !!
    No wonder so many parents are desperately looking for alternatives. This oppression of low expectations has repeatedly been proven wrong by many alternative schools — Harlem Success Academy for example.
    Time for citizens to stand up and fix our failing public school system — the unions and their politicians have grossly failed.

  2. It’s refreshing to hear that Trustee Barrera is unsure of what efforts have resulted in the fluctuations in chronic absenteeism and isn’t immediately giving the district credit for any positive changes. If SDUSD wants to know the causes of chronic absenteeism–past and current–it could ask the parents and guardians what their lived experiences are and then work together on reducing whatever issues or misunderstandings come to light.

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