Student data scandal must prompt reform

Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost today reported that nine school districts manipulated student attendance data, in order to improve their school performance results. The auditor’s seven-month, $443,000 investigation  found Campbell City, Canton City, Cincinnati City, Cleveland Municipal, Columbus City, Marion City, Northridge Local (Montgomery County), Toledo City, and Winton Woods City guilty of scrubbing data.

The investigation examined student records in 331 school buildings in 137 districts. The auditor’s investigation is complete for all districts except Columbus City Schools, which remains under an ongoing “special audit.” The investigation found iniquities ranging from intentional noncompliance with ODE reporting rules (Cincinnati City), retroactively withdrawing students (Columbus City), and jettisoning students to an online school without parental initiation or approval (Marion City).

In response to these findings, Yost presented thirteen recommendations for reforming Ohio’s system of reporting student enrollment. At his press conference this afternoon, the auditor focused sharply on his first recommendation: Reforming how traditional district’s report student enrollment.

Kids count every day, all year long

Under Ohio’s current law, district schools report their student enrollment once, during “count week” in October (see, October 2012 newsletter). This enrollment figure determines the district’s level of funding for the rest of the school year. Instead of a one-time count, the auditor recommended that traditional districts track student attendance in “more or less real time.” (Ohio requires charter schools to report student enrollment monthly.)

The auditor’s report explains how frequent attendance tracking would dis-incentivize improper enrollment practices:

If State funding is based on yearlong attendance, local schools will be much less willing to break a student’s enrollment to gain some incremental advantage by rolling up that student’s achievement test score to the State. The break in enrollment would mean a loss of money [emphasis mine]. Under the current system, there is no financial meaning to the break in enrollment—as long as the child was in school on Count Week, the later break in enrollment is consequence-free and the dollars continue to roll in (pg. 35).

Most schools play by the rules. But cheating the system (even if only isolated) cannot be tolerated. Reform to Ohio’s archaic reporting system is a first step to ensure that “attendance-gate” doesn’t happen again. We agree with the auditor—especially in changing over to yearlong reporting of student attendance. The change will ensure that, in Yost’s words, “Kids count every day, all year long.”

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