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Published: Friday, 7/27/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Test-score probe goes statewide

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS AND IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
State Auditor Dave Yost and the education department had opened a joint investigation into alleged data manipulation at Columbus, Toledo, and other districts. State Auditor Dave Yost and the education department had opened a joint investigation into alleged data manipulation at Columbus, Toledo, and other districts.
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The investigation into possible manipulation of test scores at Ohio schools moved statewide on Thursday, with the Ohio Auditor's Office now questioning what role, if any, the Ohio Department of Education had in the changes.

State Auditor Dave Yost and the education department had opened a joint investigation in recent weeks of alleged data manipulation at Columbus Public Schools. School officials appeared to have manipulated data there to remove scores for students who were chronically truant, improving their attendance rates and test scores.

RELATED ATTACHMENT: Toledo Attendance Investigation Initiation

RELATED ATTACHMENT: Dave Yost letter

But the revelation last week that similar alleged fraud may have occurred at Toledo Public Schools and Lockland Local Schools prompted Mr. Yost to inform the Ohio State Board of Education, the department's governing body, Thursday that he was expanding the probe statewide. The auditor's office now will investigate attendance reporting practices in school districts, charter schools, and the education department.

WHAT THEY SAID

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 [the Ohio Department of Education] played during the time that false reports were made by multiple schools.

-- Ohio Auditor Dave Yost

I have intimated ... over the years that some districts manipulate student data. I have always been told about TPS withdrawing and re-enrolling habitual truants. I was certain that they did that and there was always a temptation to do the same due to the fact that it is maddening to be graded on your ability to educate a child who is physically not there.

-- Washington Local Schools Superintendent Patrick Hickey

I welcome the Auditor's Office doing the investigation. It [should bring] the clarification school districts across the state have been asking for.

-- Toledo Board of Education President Lisa Sobecki

"In short, it appears that attendance report-rigging is not a localized problem with Columbus Public Schools, but that it may be more systemic," Mr. Yost wrote, "and that raises the question of what role ODE played during the time that false reports were made by multiple schools."

He said that the widespread nature raises questions of "at least a lack of oversight" in the department regarding test scores. He asked education department staff to preserve documents, requested assistance in examining department data, and asked for access to records and employees for interviews.

"[The education department] believes in the integrity of data. When it is misused we want the investigation to go wherever it leads," department spokesman John Charlton said. "To that end, we announced yesterday the results of a year-long ODE investigation of the Lockland School District. As always, we welcome the involvement of the state auditor and will continue our working relationship with them."

Lisa Sobecki, president of the Toledo board of education, said the extra scrutiny of the state education department and school districts was a good thing and would clarify for schools how they should report data.

"I welcome the auditor's office doing the investigation," she said. "It [should bring] the clarification school districts across the state have been asking for."

Also on Thursday, the education department formally notified Toledo Public Schools that it has launched an investigation into whether TPS has "improperly manipulated" its data. The investigation was ordered after TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko admitted to The Blade last week that schools retroactively withdrew and re-enrolled chronically absent students to erase their poor attendance records.

Ohio schools receive preliminary results from state standardized tests and can alter data to correct errors before the final report. Districts are allowed -- and in fact are expected -- to throw out the test scores of students who are not continuously enrolled from October through the testing dates in March and May. Some students leave for other schools, some drop out, and schools aren't required to count their scores.

But Toledo, Columbus, and the Lockland districts appeared to have gone beyond those allowances. School officials, after receiving preliminary results, took students who were "habitually truant" -- which means they missed without excuse at least five consecutive days, seven days in a month, or 12 days in a school year -- and retroactively withdrew them during the time they were absent and then re-enrolled them.

The fake withdrawals meant their scores didn't count, even though the students never actually withdrew. Frequently truant students tend to test poorly, so removing their scores would boost a school and district's report card, though it is not yet clear how much the ''scrubbing'' practice affected the Toledo Public Schools' test scores.

Reporting inaccurate data to improve school test scores is against the law, State Superintendent Stan Heffner wrote in a letter to Mr. Pecko. Schools and districts found to have falsified data could lose state funding, and employees could lose their educator's licenses. Mr. Heffner also said this week that possible criminal investigations could be initiated in cases of fraud.

On Wednesday, the state education department announced the Lockland School District, in suburban Cincinnati, had filed false attendance data for 36 students during the 2010-2011 academic year, leading to artificially higher state testing results. The state added those students into the Lockland School District's 2011 report card calculations, which resulted in it dropping from "effective" to "continuous improvement," and the district no longer being rated as meeting the federal adequate yearly progress standard.

Lockland officials could be sanctioned by the department's office of professional conduct for the false reports.

The Columbus Dispatch reported last month that Columbus City Schools had retroactively altered attendance records for thousands of students, withdrawing and then re-enrolling them. At least one high-level administrator has been suspended as a result of the practice, the newspaper reported.

Those reports prompted Mr. Pecko to do his own review of TPS practices. He later turned over the probe to an independent investigator, attorney Fritz Byers. Mr. Byers also represents The Blade newsroom on legal matters.

While one Toledo school district is embroiled in an expanding controversy, another claimed innocence and blasted the reported test manipulation.

Washington Local Schools, Toledo's second-largest school district, which includes parts of North Toledo, West Toledo, and Point Place, has never scrubbed students' test scores, its superintendent said.

"We do not do this," Patrick Hickey said. "It is tempting as a superintendent because you are graded on kids who are not there. We know that other school districts do that, and we knew it before all of this happened."

In a letter Thursday to his board of education, Mr. Hickey blasted the practice now known to have been used in Toledo Public Schools.

"I have intimated to you over the years that some districts manipulate student data," he wrote. "I have always been told about TPS withdrawing and re-enrolling habitual truants. I was certain that they did that and there was always a temptation to do the same due to the fact that it is maddening to be graded on your ability to educate a child who is physically not there."

He also wrote: "I would be dishonest to say that such things didn't cross our mind as our report card dipped to effective and such tactics would insure an excellent rating for this district and excellent with distinction would be a very real result of such manipulation. … To violate our values would be the most egregious thing we as an institution could do. Doing so would erode trust and render our words meaningless."

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.


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