WINCHESTER — Education experts believe that not consistently taking daily attendance for all students — which the Virginia Department of Education determined occurred in Winchester Public Schools during the 2020-21 school year — can have consequences for both students and schools.
A VDOE investigation found that WPS marked virtual students “present" in the first half of the school year, even if they did not have a meaningful interaction or a digital footprint. While this practice did not follow state guidelines, the school division does not face any fines or repercussions. Attendance was taken for in-person students.
While absenteeism and SOL scores determine whether a school becomes accredited, the VDOE in August for the second consecutive year waived accreditation for the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So WPS' accreditation status will not be impacted from inaccurately counting absenteeism rates.
Jennifer Steele, an associate professor at American University’s School of Education, focuses her research on education policy and the economics of education. She said there are two perspectives regarding whether student engagement and competency can be measured by daily attendance.
The first being that attendance does not equal competency in a skill or class. She said this idea, which was developed by philanthropic foundations, has been around for about a decade but is gaining more traction. This perspective can be seen in WPS Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum’s written statement to VDOE that, “We intentionally embraced an opportunity that was presented by the pandemic to show our students and families that learning is not time-bound.”
“The freedom and flexibility for our students and families has led to a new culture that promotes competency based learning not ‘seat time,’” Van Heukelum wrote. “Our students have used this extra time to work, to volunteer, and pursue a myriad of passions outside of the traditional school structure. This opportunity has been priceless and something we strongly support and see as a lasting positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The other perspective, Steele said, is that children are particularly vulnerable during a pandemic and it is more important to ensure students are checking in to make sure they’re OK.
“Those [attendance tracking] data have implications. They have implications for outreach to kids, outreach to parents, kind of part of maintaining the safety net for these kids,” Steele said. “Also, they have implications for schools to be able to take stock and say which students are most vulnerable next year.”
To make good decisions as a school organization, she said attendance rates are necessary as well as understanding any racial and socioeconomic disparities in schools.
“It’s a very real tension,” Steele said between balancing attendance as a tool to provide a safety net for students and the resistance to using attendance as a measurement of engagement.
Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, which aims to close equity gaps by reducing chronic absence, told The Star that marking daily attendance is a way of checking in on families and students before and during the pandemic.
“To me, the purpose of marking and monitoring attendance is it’s an early warning sign, because if kids experience absences then it could mean that something is happening and someone needs to check in on the child and family and they need extra support,” Chang said.
Daily attendance is even more important during the pandemic, she added.
“Because how else would you know that a kid is okay and can even access school?” Chang asked.
Attendance Works found in a January report that 31 states, including Virginia, require that attendance is recorded daily.
Attendance has also been a way of measuring exposure to learning, though it doesn’t necessarily mean students always engage with the content, Chang added. Before the pandemic, research showed that a student missing 10% or more of their classes was a sign they were more likely to be off-track for foundational skills such as reading by the third grade. Consequently, those students would be more likely to be lower achievers in middle school and possibly drop out of high school, she said.
Schools can’t notice this important impact of chronic absenteeism unless they take daily attendance, she said.
“So you used attendance by noticing when kids missed 10% or more of school, which is just two days a month, to identify students who might need extra support so that they can succeed in school,” Chang said. “This is about noticing kids who need outreach and support.”
WPS did implement a participation matrix during the 2020-21 school year, which required teachers to notify administrators every two weeks which students weren't participating so they could receive support from the Office of Student Services. Students who weren’t doing well in virtual learning were also encouraged to return to the classroom as the school year progressed.
The VDOE report acknowledges this participation matrix when it states, "while some of the attendance policy assumptions were inconsistent with VDOE guidance, the participation matrix did demonstrate a commitment to implementing a need-based approach to attendance tracking and intervention."
Chang said she also thinks the participation matrix is a good idea.
“The question is, is the frequency enough?” Chang asked. “If you’re doing it every two weeks, a kid could be gone for quite a bit of those two weeks before anyone takes action. I think there is a benefit to greater frequency.”