About 1 in 10 Virginia students were chronically absent from school in the 2014–2015 academic year, which — though not great news — is on par with national averages. Yet in the three school divisions designated as Challenged Schools by the Virginia Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, rates were notably higher: 1 in 7 in Norfolk and 1 in 5 in both Richmond and Petersburg.
“Rates are particularly high among high schoolers, low-performing students, and students who move between schools,” said Luke Miller, Curry School research assistant professor with EdPolicyWorks, a research center on education policy and workforce competitiveness and author of a report on absenteeism in Virginia. He noted also that absenteeism rates decrease from preschool through fifth grade and then rise precipitously through high school.
These findings are the result of Miller’s analysis of data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System. His research focused on statewide trends as well as on trends in Challenged Schools, which are school divisions with the highest percentage of unaccredited schools in the state and, in many cases, those facing challenging contexts such as comparatively high poverty rates and low graduation rates.
The data also indicate that chronically absent students are less likely to meet academic performance benchmarks than are other students and that students who change schools are more likely to be chronically absent. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year.
A particularly surprising finding was that the effects of chronic absenteeism appear to linger: Students who were chronically absent one year but attended school more consistently the next still had lower pass rates than peers who had never been chronically absent, Miller said.
The analysis — a successful collaboration involving the Curry School, the Children’s Cabinet, and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) — was designed to be of maximum use to policymakers seeking to understand the observable factors associated with chronic absenteeism. As Miller noted, “This analysis can also be used to target initiatives designed to help more students show up to school ready to learn every day and can serve as a benchmark for judging the effectiveness of these efforts.”
According to James Wyckoff, EdPolicyWorks director, the center is dedicated to cooperative data analysis with policymaking entities. “Luke’s report on absenteeism is high-quality research informing important policy questions that have the potential to substantially improve outcomes for students,” he said. “It is a great example of how true collaboration between researchers and policymakers can result in analysis that informs policy.”
Miller brought his analytic skills to the project, Wyckoff explained, but the VDOE had deep insight that helped orient the analysis to best support policy improvements. “Collaboration is important to us so that we do not simply publish data analyses but address problems that are important to Virginia,” Wyckoff said.
This kind of cooperative relationship can only be sustained when both sides are seeking answers, he added. “If they don’t really want to know the answer, [it] would be easier not to talk to us at all.”
Daniela Lewy, executive director of the Children’s Cabinet, which commissioned the study, said Miller thoughtfully designed and analyzed the study and worked collaboratively throughout the process to ensure his efforts advanced their joint commitment: to improve student outcomes. “Luke did a wonderful job balancing academic rigor with political expediency,” Lewy said, adding that the cabinet’s efforts will be greatly informed by Miller’s report, which she presented to the Challenged Schools team last summer.
The groundwork for EdPolicyWorks’ partnership with the Children’s Cabinet and the VDOE was laid by Curry School dean Robert Pianta, who encourages faculty to find opportunities outside of academia in which they can apply research to policy questions.
At the request of VDOE and the Children’s Cabinet, EdPolicyWorks is conducting a second analysis, currently in review, that considers students switching schools during the academic year and its effects on absenteeism and achievement. Other potential projects with VDOE are awaiting approval, including a proposal that would be funded by a federal agency.
“I think the VDOE sees the value in using research to improve what they do, and they have found us to be willing partners,” Miller said. “We all have incentives we must respond to. The sweet spot is a project that brings benefit to everyone involved.”
Miller wants to help Virginia improve the services it provides to students. “I love working with data and making sense of it,” he explained, “but I also believe in the power of government to support efforts at the local level to help kids achieve whatever greatness is in store for them.”
EdPolicyWorks is a joint collaboration between the Curry School of Education and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy that seeks to bring together researchers from across the University of Virginia and the Commonwealth to focus on important questions of educational policy and the competitiveness of labor in an era of globalization.