Cheating appears to have taken an unusual form in Columbus schools. A study of computer logs undertaken by The Columbus Dispatch uncovered instances of district employees changing student letter grades some 5,300 times over the course of one year, all in an attempt to "scrub" the data in order to meet state and federal achievement metrics.
The most active in the grade-changing game was Stanley K. Pyle, the assistant principal at Marion-Franklin High School who used the system 495 times to swap grades, mostly from Fs to Ds. That accounts for 9% of all failing-to-passing grade changes for the entire 2010-11 academic year.
The Dispatch attempted to get a statement from district officials and directly from Pyle on its findings, but received no response over email or the phone. Jeff Warner, the district spokesman, said only that such activity by a school administrator wouldn't be unusual, as one of Pyle's responsibilities would have been to make sure that all grades were entered correctly.
The lawyer the district hired to conduct an investigation that parallels that of the state auditor said there are likely good explanations why some employees changed huge numbers of grades. It was their job to correct data, he said. The failing-to-passing changes to final marks are just one type of change made to student grades. Such changes could have awarded students credits, which could have affected graduation rates. Auditors have asked whether the rates are accurate. School employees made more than 311,000 grade changes overall during the school year in question. The district, which is Ohio's largest, has about 50,000 students.
In addition to the internal investigation by the district, the Dispatch's findings also attracted the attention of State Auditor David Yost. They have been looking at the data since June in an attempt to determine if the grade changes were legitimate or an attempt by school officials to make their results look better than they were.
But grade changes weren't the only kind of record altering going on. Officials also retroactively withdrew students who had missed a large portion of the school year or who received low results on the standardized tests.
Yost now is investigating Columbus separately. His audit of other Ohio districts' scrubbing practices will be released late this month; Columbus' won't come out in the near future, he said.
"You pull the string and watch the ball unroll," he said of his growing Columbus investigation. " I can't possibly predict when we're going to be done there."
Yost said last week that he can't comment about the grade-changing data. The district's internal auditor mentioned grade changing as a potential problem in the audit she released last month.
Although principals and assistant principals do indeed have the power to change grades in the system after they've been entered, the standard operating procedure for such changes requires that each instance is recorded so the process could later be audited.