Ohio's "attendancegate": The innocent are being harmed

Ohio’s expanding attendance data scandal has the potential to match, if not exceed, the scale of recent test cheating scandals in big cities like Atlanta; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; New York; and Los Angeles. And the longer it lingers on, the more that innocent schools and educators suffer.

Ohio’s “attendancegate” began in June when the Columbus Dispatch reported that Columbus City Schools’ staff had erased more than 2.8 million student-absence days from its attendance system dating back to the 2006-07 school year and instead marked those students as having withdrawn, then reenrolled, in the district. According to the Dispatch, key central office administrators were each responsible for tens of thousands of deletions. The changes not only improved attendance records (one performance indicator on state report cards), but could also improve proficiency test scores. Only the test scores of those students who are continuously enrolled in a school from October until state tests are administered in the spring are included in the school's overall test scores and report card rating. For example, if a child moves among multiple schools during the year, his performance only "counts" at the state level, and does not apply to a particular school or district. Likewise, if school staff altered the attendance record of a child to make it appear as though the child briefly withdrew from the school, his performance wouldn't hurt the school's overall test-passage rates or attendance figures.

Less than a month after the story broke on Columbus it was reported that Toledo City Schools and Lockland City Schools (a small district near Cincinnati) had also “scrubbed” attendance records to improve their state report cards. In response to what appeared to be systemic attendance-data fraud in Ohio, State Auditor David Yost announced that his office would “scrutinize the data reported by every school district and school in the state.” This is certainly an audacious undertaking, but one warranted by the potential scale of the problem and the high stakes involved. In late August the State Board of education voted to delay the release of school report cards while the auditor investigated the allegations.

The auditor is first focusing on schools whose attendance data appear to be outliers, then will use those findings to inform a fuller investigation into all schools statewide. The auditor’s office has also raised the idea that the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) might be complicit in the scandal, stating, “In short, it appears that attendance report rigging is not a localized problem with Columbus Public Schools, but that it may be more systemic – and that raises the question of what role ODE played during the time that false reports were made by multiple schools.” According to the auditor, falsely reporting attendance data is a violation of both state and federal law and some school officials across the state could ultimately face criminal charges as well as lose their educator licenses.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of district and school leaders (the state’s 350+ charters are also under scrutiny) are upset that their schools are being tarred by this scandal. Further, they are angry because many of them are going to voters in November to seek operating levies and there is a cloud of suspicion hanging over their efforts. School districts are asking the state auditor to quickly review their attendance information so they can tell their communities they have played by the rules. And, many districts and charter schools that have worked hard to show academic success want to be able to show their voters, parents and students the results. For example, Superintendent Ed O’Reilly of Grandview Heights (a suburb of Columbus) told his local newspaper that while he understood the need to ensure the accuracy of the state data, “I am disappointed that those of us that are willing to certify the accuracy of our data are forced to wait for our results.” O’Reilly’s district is expecting to meet all 26 standards on the report card and to earn the state’s highest academic rating of Excellent or Excellent with Distinction (aka, A or A+).

High-performing charter schools are also being hurt by the scandal and the delay in the release of state report cards. Fordham, for example, authorized eight schools across the state last year and several of them have shown strong achievement gains that are going largely unnoticed. At least four of our schools – all of which serve student populations in which at least 70 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch – will be rated Effective (B) or better. And two of the schools have remarkable stories to share about their graduating eighth graders. Columbus Collegiate Academy, for example, saw 100 percent of its eighth graders proficient in math and reading last year, while KIPP Journey Academy had more than 80 percent of its eighth graders score proficient in both subjects. Yet, they have no report cards to share with their parents, funders, and supporters.

Auditor Yost updated the State Board of Education on the progress of his office’s investigation Monday and said the work might not be wrapped up until early 2013 (though his team will try to finish up the investigation of districts with levies on the ballot before November). He said he doesn’t believe that “even most schools” are involved with the data tampering and encouraged the board to move forward with the release of the report cards. According to Yost, doing so wouldn’t impede his work and, as he put it, if a school’s data were “bad” last year, they were probably bad in previous years as well. The board should have heeded the auditor’s advice, and if data change down the road based on the auditor’s work then they could update report cards accordingly. Instead, the board elected to release school performance data to the media but not to issue official report cards based on that data.  So, the delay continues, punishing the innocent.

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