West Virginia’s public education system has a major student attendance problem; too many students are missing too many days of instruction.

The newest figures from the Balanced Scorecard on public school achievement are out, and while there are the usual concerns over math and English Language Arts scores, the most troubling numbers are revealed during morning roll call.

More than one-third (38 percent) of all public schools in the state (elementary, middle, and high school) failed to meet the standard for attendance. That means at least 20 percent of the students missed 18 or more days a year, meaning they were chronically absent.

The worst attendance is at the high school level. The data show that 59 percent of the state’s high schools fail to meet even the minimum standard for attendance. Thirty-five percent partially meet the standard, while just six percent meet or exceed the standard.

State School Superintendent Steve Paine is not sugarcoating the results, which are worse than last year—the first year for the Balanced Scorecard—when 31 percent of all schools had chronic absenteeism issues.

“We have more schools this year than last who have students who missed 18 or more days of school,” Paine said. “That’s unfathomable. It’s not acceptable, and I’m really upset about it.”

The high school students math scores are terrible—86 percent of high schools do not meet the minimum standard. English Language Arts scores are better—78 percent at least partially meet the standard. However, how can the schools make significant progress when at over half of the high schools at least one in five students is chronically absent?

There are mounds of research showing the link between attendance and achievement. “Children who are chronically absent have lower levels of school readiness upon entering kindergarten, are less likely to read at grade level by the third grade, show lower levels of social engagement, are more likely to drop out of school, and are less likely to graduate from high school or attend college,” reported the National Education Association.

It gets worse from there. Dropouts are more likely to be stuck in low paying jobs, become parents at a young age and end up in trouble with the law. The rest of society suffers as a result because it must assume the additional burden created by the underachievers.

Paine is putting pressure on the local school systems to do a better job on attendance. “We have not held local school boards accountable for results,” Paine said. “If they want more flexibility, they need to step up and accept responsibility.”

There is near universal agreement in West Virginia that we need better public education outcomes. We also know this is a significant challenge because of high rates of poverty and the opioid epidemic.

In many cases, our public schools, teachers, counselors and administrators provide the only stability in a child’s life. But it’s hard to help those kids if they’re not in the building, and overall academic achievement will always been limited if large percentages of our students simply don’t go to school.

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