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WV ranks near bottom of country for education outcomes as childhood poverty increases, data shows

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WV ranks near bottom of country for education outcomes as childhood poverty increases, data shows

Jun 11, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
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WV ranks near bottom of country for education outcomes as childhood poverty increases, data shows
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The Kids Count data released on Monday showed that 35% of West Virginia children were chronically absent from school during the 2021-22 school year, worse than the national average of 30% of children. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

One quarter of children in West Virginia live in poverty, and new data shows the number has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Kids Count Data Book ranked West Virginia 47th out of 50 states for children’s economic well-being. The data, released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, sought to analyze how kids are fairing post-pandemic.

The study linked poverty to poor education outcomes, and West Virginia ranked 48th out of 50 for education.

Fred Albert, president of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said teachers are spending classroom time helping the state’s 6,000 kids in foster care, thousands of homeless students and the growing number of children in need of mental health support.

“Our educators are telling us that they’re spending an inordinate amount of time helping with kids who are hungry and who are sleeping in class because they are not getting a good night’s sleep wherever they’re staying the night before,” Albert said. “You cannot concentrate on getting an education, and you can’t think properly if you’re hungry or you’re not sure where you’re going to sleep.”

According to the data, 85% of eighth graders were not proficient in math and 78% of fourth graders were not proficient in reading in 2022, the most recent data available.

“A score is just a snapshot in time,” Albert explained. “It doesn’t tell the real story of what’s actually happening in the classroom. We can’t just put emphasis on the test scores — we’ve got to meet the whole needs of the child.”

Students’ standardized test results from 2023 also showed poor outcomes in math and reading. The scores still lag behind where West Virginia students were before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, Albert said worsening absenteeism played a part in low academic performance.

The Kids Count data showed that 35% of West Virginia children were chronically absent from school during the 2021-22 school year, worse than the national average of 30% of children. 

In an effort to address the problem, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 568, which requires communication with parents about students who have missed school. Additionally, schools will be required to determine the reason for the student’s absence and offer support.

Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said support services were key in addressing chronic absenteeism.

“Staff specifically dedicated to checking in with parents,” she explained. “Not asking teachers to do more, but making sure the school support staff is really robust and they have the resources they need.”

Not every school in West Virginia has a full-time counselor or social worker. 

Allen said that the Republican-heavy state Legislature has focused on school choice, which typically only helps a “certain subset of families” who are typically not living in poverty. 

“I hope they take these [Kids Count] results seriously and recognize that over 90% of kids receive their education in the public school system and will continue to do so,” she said. “I hope they’ll revisit public education as a priority.” 

Albert added, “Our recent legislative sessions have not been focused on the issues so critical to a good education … We’ve been focused on these cultural wars — the things that are not what our teachers are asking for help with like attendance and getting children out of foster care or [homelessness].”

Nearly half of West Virginia kids face Adverse Childhood Experiences

West Virginia ranked 44th in overall child well-being, and 45% of children face one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) compared with 40% of children nationwide. 

Children with ACE scores are almost four times more likely to have been suspended or expelled. 

During the 2023 legislative session, teachers said a top issue was addressing widespread discipline issues that interfered with classroom instruction time.

A bill that would have bolstered elementary teachers’ ability to remove students from their classrooms failed to get across the finish line on the final night of session in March. The legislation, crafted by a senator who is a public school teacher, faced pushback for its lack of emotional support for students and possible involvement of law enforcement with young kids.

 “Our teachers and school personnel have said, ‘We need people to listen to us. We are on the front lines,” Albert said. 

Additionally, the KIDS COUNT data noted that the majority of West Virginia kids have health insurance.

“The data show the importance of policy in improving child health, with just 3% of West Virginia children lacking health insurance in 2022, amid pandemic-era continuous coverage Medicaid and CHIP rules and the most recent year of data available,” said the WVCBP in a news release.