New data from Prince William County Public Schools shows testing improvement in crucial areas like reading and math, even as school division officials are increasingly concerned about falling attendance.
Results from the most recent Virginia Growth Assessment earlier this year show significant improvement from fall 2022 scores. Taken in grades third through eighth, the reading and math assessments focus on material from a student’s current grade level.
In math and reading, third-graders saw the biggest improvement in reading scores from the fall 2022 assessments. The Virginia Department of Education has yet to release interpretation guides for the “vertical scaled scores” on which the test is graded, making the raw scores difficult to analyze on their own. But all of the county’s tested grade levels showed improvement on the test, which has been a state mandate since 2021.
Multiple reading assessments for younger students showed progress. The percentage of students from grades second through fifth reading on or above grading level, according to the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reading assessments, jumped from 42.6% in the first quarter to 56.1% in the second quarter.
According to the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, or PALS, 66% of first-graders and 68% of second-graders were considered on target in terms of word recognition. In spelling, 65% and 74% of grades first and second, respectively, were found to be on target.
“Yes, there is still work to do. We knew that this would be a long-term process,” Superintendent LaTanya McDade told the School Board on March 15. “However … we’re moving in the right direction. We’re seeing some promising practice as well as outcomes to show that the work that we’re doing is taking root.”
For middle and high school students, in-class grades dipped slightly in the second quarter, with more students failing one or more courses at both levels.
But more concerning to School Board members at the March 15 meeting were dips in attendance across every grade level in the school system.
For all students, attendance dropped from 94% in the first quarter to 92% in the second. Attendance in the 12th grade fell from 92% to 89% between the two quarters, and over 23% of all students have missed nine or more days (out of 90 total) across the first two quarters. Students who miss 10% of school days or more are considered chronically absent.
High schoolers have missed the most school, with 28.7% of high schoolers missing nine or more days. Over 28% of special education students missed nine or more days, and over 26% of English-language learners did the same.
“We know that there is a correlation between absenteeism and classroom performance. Stated simply, better attendance is associated with higher grades,” Michael Neall, the division’s supervisor of program evaluation, told the board. “It isn’t just our academic performance that’s critical here, but it’s hard to make a connection and foster a sense of belonging when students aren’t present in school. And we know that that is critical in addressing social-emotional needs.”
Neall and other officials from the school system said absenteeism is more common in the days surrounding holidays, of which there were more in the second quarter. They also said that there’s been a growing culture since the pandemic of families keeping students home if they say they don’t feel well.
McDade said that if students are sick, they should stay home. But both excused and unexcused absences count toward a student’s “chronically absent” status, which in turn can impact a school’s state accreditation.
Every school in the division, Neall said, is implementing a “specific and targeted” attendance plan to address chronic absenteeism, and the division has a new initiative aimed at improving notification of families when a student is chronically absent.
“This is a full-court press, as you would say, across many departments,” said Julie Crawford, director of student health and wellness.
School-based teams are trying to reach absent students and their families regularly. At the division level, communications and students services staff are trying to increase communication with families about the importance of attendance.
Starting in January, the school system has also started holding “reengagement nights,” in which schools try to host families whose students have become disengaged or are considered at risk of dropping out.
“It has an impact on a child’s education,” Denise Huebner, associate superintendent for student services, said of attendance. “The message that we’re trying to send to parents is that we care about your child, we want to be sure that your child’s well, and we want your child in school to learn.”