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Ohio Data Scrubbing Driven by "Mal-Intent," Auditor Says

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki @jzubrzycki

As the investigation into attendance-data tampering in Ohio's school districts continues, Ohio's state Auditor David Yost has said that his interviews have led him to believe there was "mal-intent" on the part of some school and district officials, The Columbus Dispatch reports.

As we reported this summer, school officials in several Ohio school districts withdrew and then re-enrolled students with poor attendance records, which means those students' test scores didn't "count" for schools' performance report cards. Earlier this month, the auditor released an interim report that found "questionable" practices in the Cleveland, Marion County, Columbus City, Toledo, and Campbell City school districts. The situation in each district was slightly different. In Toledo, for instance, unenrolling students who had more than five unexcused or 20 excused absences marked a return to an old policy; in Cleveland, there was no clear documentation of the actions. You can find more detail in the report or here.

The report does not establish malicious intent from the districts. Yost told the Associated Press at the time that "the kind of work we've done here is necessary to support a criminal prosecution, but it's not sufficient." But in last week's conversation with the Columbus board, he said he thought there was evidence that at least some of those involved did intentionally tamper with the data.

Officials from Columbus changed their explanation last week, after the auditor gave his interim report. Columbus school officials had initially said they were not aware school officials were changing attendance records, but now echo their counterparts in Toledo, saying they were confused by state guidance on when to withdraw students who've been regularly absent. This shift in Columbus's argument came after Yost said that criminal investigations for data tampering would likely depend on the intent of the adjustments.

The Dispatch reports that Yost said arguing that the tampering is due to confusion about the state's policy on when to withdraw students is "'to strain at gnats and swallow camels'—or to fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious issues." (You learn a new idiom every day.)

The next report should come out late next week, and will examine attendance data in districts with school funding levies on the ballot in this fall's election, according to Carrie Bartunke, a spokeswoman for the auditor's office. The final report is slated to be released at the beginning of the new year, and will likely go farther in establishing the intent of the officials involved. The Dispatch reports that Yost was encouraging the districts to begin to improve their attendance policies now.

The interim report recommends that the state create independent oversight of districts' attendance data, saying that there's a conflict of interest now: Districts are responsible for reporting their data, but also have an interest in making sure their data is presented in the best possible light. The current reporting system allows districts to see a projected report card score when they submit their data, which could then lead them to choose to "scrub" data to improve that score. To discourage that from happening, the auditor's report recommends that districts not have access to the projected score.

Yost has also been advocating for the state to have access to individual students' data. The current system, which divorces student traits like name and age from the identifying student number, aims to protect students' privacy but can lead to confusion—and, Yost says, has hampered his investigation.

Some of the Ohio schools involved do receive financial incentives for improvement or high performance on the tests, according to the interim report, though it does not say which ones. This story on cheating scandals remains good background reading on the drivers that lead people to manipulate student data.

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