Ohio’s State Auditor has added four more school districts to the list of those suspected of changing student data to avoid poor state ratings. The Columbus Dispatch says that Dave Yost now believes 9 of Ohio’s 614 districts cheated to avoid penalties. But, says Jennifer Smith Richards, several of the schools claim that their mistakes were honest and protest that the state’s rules were too unclear.
Cincinnati, the state’s most-improved large urban district, was added to the list of “scrubbers” yesterday. So were Canton, Northridge in Montgomery County, and Winton Woods in Hamilton County. Columbus, Cleveland, Marion, Toledo and Campbell in Mahoning County had been named in an interim report in October.
Most of the districts are accused of finding ways to delete records of under-performing students. The students may have transferred within the district, from one high school to another, often to an alternative school. Some students with notable absences were withdrawn from records without their knowledge. The students with high rates of absence were often scoring low on standardized tests. Yost alleges that one district even marked low-performing students as “home schooled” to avoid taking credit for their test scores.
The newly-added schools protested that they didn’t deserve the public shame.
In an email to the auditor’s office, Canton Superintendent Adrian Allison lamented that Canton “ will be lumped into a report about districts and schools that intentionally manipulated data to improve their results on the Report Card.”
“The one thing I am sure about is that there was no data ‘scrubbing’ in Canton City Schools,” Allison wrote.
But Yost said that his report had already screened for honest mistakes, and that his team believed the nine districts had intentionally altered data. He didn’t exonerate the state’s Education Department, admitting that its rules were often unclear. He also recommended more oversight, including that the state should have not only student numbers and scores, but also student names so that it can verify which students had moved. Perhaps most importantly, the auditor recommended withholding the state’s pending conclusions before they are final.
Yost also said schools shouldn’t be allowed to see their projected report-card grade before they have finished submitting student data. Schools now submit test scores and other data and can see a preliminary calculation of report-card grades. That encourages them to fiddle with data until they get the desired grade, Yost said. The report says Toledo did that.
The state’s allegations against Columbus are more serious. A study of computer logs showed that some employees, including an assistant principal, actively changed student grades from failing to passing. They may have changed grades over 5,000 times over the course of the 2011-2012 school year.
Ohio plans to recalculate schools’ scores, using the new information. Beyond that, penalties will vary. It’s assumed that the schools broke state rules, but some may have broken federal rules. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top mandate that schools collect data as part of their federal funding. Tampering with student scores could lead to federal charges for these districts. The auditor believes that Columbus’s grade changing practices will certainly involve federal complaints.