State of Prince William schools: Chronic absenteeism, drop-out rates alarm county officials

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Prince William County Public Schools made small gains in standardized test scores and other assessment areas last academic year, but key issues persist in specific student groups, county officials told the School Board during its Oct. 18 meeting.

Chronic absenteeism, rising drop-out rates and access and achievement gaps for student subgroups are the most persistent and glaring issues across the county, Superintendent LaTanya McDade and other county officials told the board in their State of the Schools 2022-23 presentation.

“We are moving in the right direction in most areas coming out of the pandemic, however, we still have struggling achievement gaps that persist related to learning loss,” McDade said.

Standards of Learning pass rates improved by 3.6 percentage points in math and 6 percentage points in science while remaining relatively the same in reading. The pass rates remain well short of the county’s goal that by 2025 all students in grades 3-8 will reach an 85% pass rate.

While most students made gains in each of the SOL testing categories, the Hispanic population, English-learner population and students with disabilities remain the furthest behind in each category.

SAT scores

Similarly, Prince William County Public Schools students made gains in SAT scores. A total of 53% of all students reached the benchmark test scores in both the math and reading sections of the SAT, up from 48% the prior year.

That number, however, varied significantly among different student groups. Again, Hispanic students, English-learner students and students with disabilities remain behind the rest of the student population.

Several board members applauded the county’s effort to get more Prince William students to take the SAT and the effort to get more students enrolled in advanced, rigorous classes.

In 2022-23, 48% of all students completed advanced or dual enrollment courses.

In an effort to increase that enrollment number, the county expanded Equal Opportunity Schools to all 13 high schools in the county.

Equal Opportunity Schools is a nonprofit organization that works with schools to “ensure that students that are underrepresented in challenging coursework have access to programs and opportunities, and then they experience success in reaching those high standards,” said Stephanie Soliven, associate superintendent for teaching and learning with Prince William County schools.

“In this day and age where folks will comment on the lack of rigor or commitment to rigor, I think it’s important that two of our main goals is improving SATs and advanced coursework,” said School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef.

While SOLs are confirmation of a student receiving the basic knowledge a school system aims to teach them, Lateef said, SAT scores and grade point average in a rigorous curriculum are the best predictors of how students will perform in college.

“A commitment to improving our SAT scores and improving our access and opportunity for students in advanced curriculum starting even at the middle school really is critical,” Lateef said.

Drop-out rates

While 92% of all Prince William County Public Schools high school students graduate on-time, that number varies greatly across different student subgroups. Only 71% of English-learners, for example, graduate on-time, an 8% decrease since 2021.

Despite the relatively high on-time graduation rate, drop-out rates increased on average for all students, but again, most significantly for English-learners and Hispanic students.

The rate for all students reached 6.9% in 2023, up from 5.1% in 2021, whereas the drop-out rate reached 14.6% and 28.7% for Hispanic students and English-learners, respectively.

To address such increased drop-out rates, the county developed an On-Time Graduation Task Force with a new early warning system. This system allows school leaders, counselors and other staff members to track every student with deficiencies toward graduation.

More than just tracking the student, the dashboard requires the entry of an intervention plan and monitoring of its implementation.

“Students will not fall through the cracks in this system. This team is taking an exhaustive approach to understanding our population that do drop out and the use of that information to address root causes,” said Soliven.

Chronic absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism, which occurs when students miss 10% or more of school, remains a significant issue across all student groups.

While chronic absenteeism declined slightly from the previous year, it remains significantly higher than pre-COVID-19 times: Nearly 22% of all students were chronically absent last academic year, compared to nearly 6% in academic year 2020-21.

The county recently launched an attendance awareness campaign to increase student and family awareness and engagement around attendance, according to Denise Huebner, the associate superintendent for student services and post-secondary success with Prince William County schools.

Huebner said the county is speaking with students and hoping to understand why they are missing school time and make changes accordingly.

While strides have been made with rising test scores and growing access to advanced courses for all students, work remains to be done for the county to reach the goals laid out in its strategic plan.

“The School Board in collaboration with the superintendent are putting together ambitious goals. Some of these goals we may achieve, we may not achieve. But we’ve set them high, and I think it’s really important for everyone to understand that the board takes this all very seriously, as does Dr. McDade,” Lateef said.

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