Ohio auditor: 4 more schools manipulated data

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Four more Ohio districts removed poor-performing students from their rolls, state Auditor David Yost said Monday in the final step of his investigation into a practice by schools to improve performance ratings.

More than 70 schools or districts also had attendance reporting errors, though these didn't appear to be purposeful, Yost said.

The four districts bring to nine the number that Yost has identified in his investigation of the data withdrawal practice known as "scrubbing."

The districts Yost identified Monday are Canton and Cincinnati city schools, Winton Woods city schools in Hamilton County and Northridge Local schools in Montgomery County.

Yost said the districts withdrew students retroactively or improperly reported attendance at alternative programs. In the case of Cincinnati schools, he charged, the district ignored state rules "because they didn't like them. They didn't think they were well advised, and said as much to us in our interview."

Cincinnati denied any wrongdoing. The district "has examined this matter internally and found no evidence that any of its employees intentionally manipulated student data in a manner in which they knew to be improper," said Superintendent Mary Ronan.

Yost's top recommendation Monday was requiring the state to peg school funding on yearlong attendance figures to encourage attendance through the entire year. Now, attendance figures are based on a count in October.

He said schools go to great lengths, from contests to spirit days to calls home to parents, to ensure children come to school during "count week."

"What we're suggesting is that money follow the kids more or less in real time so that each day there's an incentive to keep the child in school," Yost said Monday. "Kids should count every day."

Yost also called on lawmakers to repeal the current law that shields students' names from Department of Education regulators to allow them to better track kids. But he also said the agency provided insufficient oversight on attendance reporting.

The Education Department was reviewing Yost's 120-page report and promised to take the recommendations seriously.

"We understand we can improve our policies and our practices, and improve safeguards and make our data systems more robust," said spokesman John Charlton. The agency was ready to release the long-delayed district report cards, due last summer, now that the audit was done, he added.

Yost also said the state should require independent oversight of districts' data reporting instead of the current honor system, and the state should also independently monitor transfers by at-risk students.

Yost previously said Campbell, Cleveland, Columbus, Marion and Toledo city schools improperly removed students.

Canton also denied wrongdoing. "While we know that there are opportunities to ensure that the data is as accurate as possible, we are certain that there was no data 'scrubbing' in the Canton City School District," said superintendent Adrian Allison. Messages were left for Winton Woods and Northridge Local officials.

Yost's auditors spread out across the state to investigate a statistically selected sampling of districts.

He launched the review in response to unusual practices discovered in Toledo and suburban Cincinnati districts, as well as in Columbus. In November, federal authorities joined the investigation into the Columbus schools, and Yost separated the district from the rest of the state probe due to the likelihood of criminal referrals.

Yost said Monday he's referring the nine districts to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus