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Published: Monday, 10/1/2012

Big districts dominate audit 

Ohio investigating for student-data manipulation

BY JENNIFER SMITH RICHARDS
COLUMBUS DISPATCH

COLUMBUS — At least 40 of the 100 schools the state au­di­tor is in­ves­ti­gat­ing for stu­dent-data ma­nip­u­la­tion are from six large, ur­ban school dis­tricts, a news­pa­per’s anal­y­sis found. Schools in Toledo, Cin­cin­nati, Cleve­land, Day­ton, and Youngs­town have been vis­ited by state au­di­tors.

Of­fi­cials in Akron and Can­ton — the other two “Big 8” dis­tricts in Ohio — re­fused to say whether schools there are be­ing looked at. 

The Co­lum­bus Dis­patch iden­ti­fied 54 schools in a dozen of Ohio’s 614 dis­tricts that have been vis­ited in the first phase of the au­di­tor’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Although a dis­trict may have been vis­ited by state au­di­tors, those re­views don’t nec­es­sar­ily mean any­thing in­ap­pro­pri­ate oc­curred.

State Au­di­tor Dave Yost is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether schools ma­nip­u­lated stu­dent-at­ten­dance records. He is fo­cus­ing only on the 2010-11 school year. 

Some schools have been caught, or ad­mit­ted to, with­draw­ing and then re-en­roll­ing stu­dents who hadn’t left. The with­draw­als meant the schools wouldn’t be held ac­count­able on state re­port cards for the stu­dents’ test scores or poor at­ten­dance.

The Dis­patch an­a­lyzed dis­tricts’ with­drawal trends to iden­tify which ones might be likely tar­gets of the au­di­tor’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion and then made pub­lic-records re­quests to dis­cover de­tails about au­di­tors’ vis­its.

Although many of the schools are in big ur­ban school dis­tricts with high rates of stu­dent turn­over, other dis­tricts are sub­ur­ban, ru­ral, or small. They all have one thing in com­mon, though: They had with­drawn large num­bers of stu­dents who also had taken state ex­ams.

Some dis­tricts said au­di­tors spent sev­eral days in their build­ings re­view­ing hun­dreds of stu­dent files. 

In Toledo schools, for ex­am­ple, au­dit staff ex­am­ined about 800 stu­dent records in eight schools. Thirty-nine Co­lum­bus build­ings have been vis­ited. 

Spokes­man Jeff Warner con­firmed that au­di­tors were fol­low­ing 1,236 stu­dent records that orig­i­nated at 10 schools. 

Co­lum­bus is the state’s larg­est school dis­trict, with about 50,000 stu­dents. The Plain Dealer re­ported that at­ten­dance records in 15 Cleve­land schools are be­ing au­dited. Ques­tion­able data prac­tices in Co­lum­bus and Toledo and con­firmed fal­si­fi­ca­tion at Lock­land in sub­ur­ban Cin­cin­nati led the au­di­tor to in­ves­ti­gate prac­tices state­wide.

Sev­eral dis­tricts said that au­di­tors found noth­ing ir­regu­lar dur­ing their vis­its. 

In gen­eral, au­di­tors are look­ing for ev­i­dence that the with­draw­als were le­git­i­mate; they’re mak­ing sure that if a stu­dent was taken off a school’s rolls, there’s proper doc­u­men­ta­tion to ex­plain why. 

Schools aren’t sup­posed to re­move a stu­dent from their ros­ters un­less the stu­dent drops out or goes to an­other school, and they’re sup­posed to keep pa­per­work to back up the ac­tion.

In ad­di­tion to the 100 schools flagged for in­ves­ti­ga­tions, au­di­tors were al­ready in 33 schools that are part of a pro­gram that al­lows the state to re­view fi­nan­cial data quickly at the close of each fis­cal year. 

On Wed­nes­day, Mr. Yost emailed ev­ery Ohio su­per­in­ten­dent to re­quest sig­na­tures on a waiver that would al­low au­di­tors to view stu­dent records, which typ­i­cally are pro­tected by fed­eral law. As of Fri­day af­ter­noon, 185 dis­tricts had signed and re­turned waiv­ers, said Car­rie Bar­tunek, spokes­man for the au­di­tor.

That next phase of the state’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, in which Mr. Yost looks at a greater num­ber of schools to try to spot ques­tion­able prac­tices, hasn’t yet be­gun, Ms. Bar­tunek said.



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