Student Well-Being

Ohio Deepens Attendance-Tampering Probe

By Christina A. Samuels & Andrew Ujifusa — August 07, 2012 4 min read
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Ohio state investigators plan to launch a probe into all state districts after revelations that three school systems tampered with attendance records of their schools.

In some cases, districts erased student absences. Attendance is one of the benchmarks used by the state to evaluate schools.

The state is also investigating whether districts were removing students from the rolls and re-enrolling them later. That practice can boost school test results because scores are counted only for students enrolled for most of the year.

The Columbus Dispatch newspaper, investigating reports of attendance-data “scrubbing” in the 50,000-student Columbus district, said in an article that it found district administrators who said schools “withdraw and then re-enroll students with poor attendance records so their potentially poor test scores won’t count” against the schools. Columbus is the largest district in the state.

The 22,000-student Toledo district and the Lockland district, a 630-student school system in suburban Cincinnati, have also come under investigation.

The state education department has downgraded Lockland’s academic rating from “effective” to “continuous improvement.” The district put its superintendent, Donna Hubbard, on leave last week and also withdrew a tax-levy request that would gone to voters Aug. 7. The district’s school board president, Terry Gibson, said in a statement that “we need to have the issue fully resolved before we go before the public and ask for its hard-earned tax dollars.”

Notifying the State

The Columbus school system said it notified the state a year ago when the district noticed anomalies in attendance data. A district spokesman said Superintendent Gene T. Harris alerted the Columbus school board that district officials had identified inconsistencies in 16 students’ attendance records. Ms. Harris told the district’s internal auditor to launch an investigation, which is continuing. The state auditor believed there was insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation on its part at that time.

“As a school district with high mobility among our students, keeping pace with changes to student records is an ongoing challenge,” Columbus schools spokesman Jeff Warner said in a statement. “Hopefully, through the auditor of state’s review there will be greater clarity provided regarding the rules by which attendance records may be changed. If the auditor of state determines that [the Columbus district] has misapplied or misinterpreted these rules, the district will take the appropriate corrective actions.”

In a July 26 letter to state school board President Debe Terhar, Auditor of State Dave Yost outlined the ways his investigation into the attendance records would broaden, including the need for the state education department to preserve “all documents and records” without regard to schedules for retaining public records.

Stressing that the investigation had to stay independent of the education department, Mr. Yost wrote that “there is no evidence at this time that anyone at [the Ohio Department of Education] is involved in the attendance-report rigging, but the apparently widespread nature of the practice begs the question of at least a lack of oversight.”

In an interview, Mr. Yost said his office originally agreed to do a joint investigation of the Columbus schools with the Ohio education department after discussions with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Stan W. Heffner. But when the practice appeared to be more widespread than originally thought, he decided to make his investigation independent. Mr. Yost said he plans to have the probe completed by fall.

Seen as Cheating

A spokesman for the state education department, John Charlton, said rigging attendance-report data is a form of cheating, since the practice affects test scores.

“If we can’t trust the districts to submit the data accurately, we’re going to have to become more vigilant,” Mr. Charlton said.

The department did have safeguards against such incidents, he added. For example, by tracking students through their individual identification numbers, the department is supposed to flag when school data show that an individual student has withdrawn, but has not subsequently enrolled in a different school, and then re-enrolls soon after in the same school.

Mr. Yost, the state auditor, declined to say whether the investigation would look at multiple years’ worth of data. “We will begin by doing some data mining and sampling to determine where we should put our resources,” he said.

In addition to lowering the performance rating for districts and schools that engage in such deception, Mr. Charlton said the department has the authority to fine districts by withholding portions of their state aid.

Damon Asbury, the director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association, said he hoped that the auditor’s investigation would clarify best practices in the data-reporting process.

“We want it to be accurate. Otherwise it’s of no value,” he said of school and district data.

At the same time, Mr. Asbury said that part of the explanation for the practice was likely the demands on teachers and principals caused by high-stakes tests.

“There is that pressure to do well on tests that sometimes takes people away from the important mission of educating children,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Ohio Deepens Probe Into Attendance-Data Tampering

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