By Tom Blumer | Special to Ohio Watchdog
Fueling the concerns of those who believe that Ohio‘s schools may have been seriously overstating their academic results for at least several years, the Columbus Dispatch reported Sept. 27 that test scores for the 2011-2012 academic year at Columbus City Schools catastrophically declined:
The Columbus schools that deleted the most student attendance records last year posted dramatic academic declines after the practice was halted this year, according to test-passing rates that the state released yesterday on school report cards.
At East High School, which deleted more absences than any other Columbus school during the 2010-11 school year, passing rates on the reading section of the Ohio Graduation Test plunged by 23.5 percentage points; only 50.5 percent of students passed the exam in March. In fact, passing rates in all subjects took a dive at East.
… Of the five other high schools with the greatest number of record changes in 2010-11, all saw significant drops in passing rates, most of them in double digits.
The plunge in reported results occurred because, unlike in past years, CCS apparently submitted “clean” data to the Ohio Department of Education, free of the ”attendance scrubbing” alterations I began following (here, here, and here) in late July.
As of the end of that month, we knew, thanks largely to work by Dispatch reporters, that CCS officials had erased 2.8 million student absences from its computers in the past 5 1/2 years, enabling it, after the scrubbing, to brag about having a 94.2 percent attendance rate and report inflated average standardized test scores to ODE.
We also knew that an undetermined number of other large and small school districts statewide have engaged in the practice. But we do know, thanks to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Edith Starzyk in 2008, that the practice has been going on for many years.
Finally, we knew that Ohio Auditor Dave Yost had begun a statewide investigation of attendance scrubbing after concluding, based on reports from two other districts, that “attendance report rigging is not a localized problem with … (CCS), but that it may be more systemic.” Yost also expressed concern about “what role ODE played during the time that false reports were made by multiple schools,” leading to “the question of at least a lack of oversight.”
Since then, there have been a number of developments.
In late August, the school board at Lockland, a small suburban district north of Cincinnati, fired its superintendent and her son for their alleged involvement in pervasive attendance scrubbing. Specifically, the pair was accused of “improperly listing 37 Lockland students as withdrawn from the district in 2010-11,” all of whom had “failed all or parts of the state achievement or graduation tests.” The fired superintendent’s lawyer has claimed that the pair was “correcting” the data, and is suing the district on her behalf.
In mid-August, Yost, in an email sent to all superintendents, urged districts “to voluntarily disclose whether they’re falsifying their student-attendance data.” His expressed belief that “some folks out there that have been taking improper action in good faith” seemed too forgiving in the circumstances.
On Sept. 20, CCS Superintendent Gene Harris, who nine months earlier had said she had no plans to leave, announced her retirement from her $192,000-per-year position, effective June 2013. The Dispatch described her move a “surprise.”
On Sept. 23, the Dispatch’s Jennifer Smith Richards and Bill Bush told the story of how CCS implemented its attendance scrubbing:
(The district’s data center director) would hand principals a roster of student names and tell them to highlight the ones who had at least five consecutive absences, principals say. Some years, he’d take the roster back to a … (data center) employee who would “break the enrollment” of those students.
Last year, he handed the sheet back to principals, telling them it was their job to withdraw, then re-enroll, the highlighted students, principals say. And then he sent the principals into a room with several computers, leaving them to a task that state officials say is against the rules: You can’t arbitrarily withdraw students who haven’t left school just because they were absent more than you’d like.
How many serious year-to-year declines we’ll see at other school districts remains to be seen. My gut tells me it will be quite a few. If so, what an unforgivable disgrace.