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Columbus District's Plummeting Dropout Numbers May Have Been Exaggerated

Whatever happened to the low dropout numbers touted by Ohio's Columbus City Schools?

A report in the Columbus Dispatch suggests that reports that the number of dropouts had plummeted from about 2,000 annually to about 600 may not have been true after all.

For years, the district reported that about 2,000 students dropped out of school annually. Then around 2010, the district started claiming that the figure had fallen to about 600 students. And it credited some district programs—including better tracking of students—as the reasons for the decline.

Now the district says that it can't substantiate the claim that the figure was ever 600 students.

"I can't explain how we arrived at those," Jeff Warner, the district spokesman, told The Columbus Dispatch. "It appears that those numbers that were reported were not accurate. We've gone back through everything, and we cannot find anything to indicate that the numbers were that low."

State officials, who pay attention to those kinds of things, also failed to "flag"  the numbers for further review, the paper reports.

John Charlton, an Ohio Department of Education spokesman, told the paper that while the state education department saw a decline for grades 9 through 12, "the change was subtle enough so as not to raise any suspicion."

In 2012, the paper detailed how some administrators had altered student attendance records, in some cases, by withdrawing students who were persistent absentees and then re-enrolling them in school.

State Auditor Dave Yost followed up, conducting an 18-month investigation and audit of the Columbus City Schools. In a report released earlier this year, Yost detailed a  "culture"  of deception in the district under former Superintendent Gene Harris in which administrators felt they had to "manipulate data or face consequences to their careers."

Yost  also looked at other school districts and found that eight other districts—among them the Canton, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo school systems—improperly reported student attendance data using "questionable practices" as part of an investigation into "attendance scrubbing" at a number of the state's schools.  

Prosecutors are weighing criminal charges, the paper reported.

Harris, who retired last July to spend time with her family, has denied directing employees to change student data and has said that the state investigation was not the reason for her retirement, nearly a year before her contract was set to expire.

The discrepancy started to show up in Columbus in the 2011-2012 school year, when 1,100 more students dropped out than did the previous year. Then last year, 1,600 students were reported to have dropped out, the paper said.

At the time when the low numbers were reported, then-superintendent Harris, defended the figures. 

"Is this real? I believe it absolutely is real. I think it's a result of both our academic and operational work," she told the paper in a  2010 story about the dropout reduction.

The district at the time attributed the lower numbers in part to better tracking, persuading students to return to school, and including students, who at 18 could legally stop attending school, as withdrawing instead of dropping out, the paper said.

Even using some of those measures to explain the decline in dropouts, there still remained an unexplained gap of 800 students, according to the paper.

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