The Ohio Department of Education lowered the report-card ratings for a small suburban school district near Cincinnati last week. It concluded after investigations that the Lockland School District had falsified student attendance data in a way that boosted its scores on the state report card. Lockland, as it turns out, is not alone in massaging student data to its advantage, in the process putting a huge question mark on the accuracy of information the state promotes as measures of school quality and accountability.
With attendance data in the Columbus and Toledo school districts also under scrutiny for similar practices, David Yost, the state auditor, is launching an audit of all school districts, charter schools and the Department of Education. For its part, the department is conducting its own investigation, with Stan Heffner, the state school superintendent, threatening criminal charges against officials found to have falsified data.
According to reporting by the Columbus Dispatch, “data scrubbing” involves school officials retroactively withdrawing students with spotty attendance records and re-enrolling them soon after. In computing scores and the ratings for the annual report card, the state policy is to count test scores and attendance rates for students who are enrolled consecutively for most of the year. In data reported to the state, Lockland claimed 36 students had left the school system for another district, though no other districts reported enrolling them. Shortly after the students supposedly had left, they were re-enrolled in the district.
The state computes scores in an effort not to penalize schools unduly for students who rarely attend class. Nonetheless, a break in enrollment affecting a large number of students works in a district’s favor. It offers a perverse incentive for districts to “erase” certain students (for example, truants or students whose families relocate often) and their weak test scores for an easy boost in school ratings. Re-enrollment ensures the students count in the formula for calculating state funding.
Attendance-data scrubbing is dishonest. It exploits a policy that recognizes the difficulty in educating students who are not present to be taught. More disturbing, the practice goes to the credibility of Ohio’s accountability system. State officials present the report card as an accurate reflection of the progress and quality of local schools, a measure taxpayers may depend on in assessing financial and other support. Thus, data scrubbing raises questions of trustworthiness about the whole system. And if districts do not invite trust, they risk lacking the resources required for an adequate education, leaving all of Ohio to fall behind.