The state's auditor said five Ohio school districts have used questionable attendance policies and practices, putting them at a higher risk for scrubbing attendance data to improve their school report cards.
State Auditor Dave Yost released the preliminary findings Thursday as part of his investigation into potentially irregular attendance and enrollment practices.
The data was collected from a sampling of more than 100 school buildings that experienced high withdrawal rates - or about 3 percent of Ohio's 3,688 public schools.
"It appears to be a reasonable conclusion the data was manipulated," Yost said.
Yost said some schools in the five districts withdrew students based on a pattern of absences, which could have been influenced by lower test scores, without proper documentation.
The districts are Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Marion and Campbell. Scrubbing is the practice of removing students from enrollment without lawful reason.
According to Yost, scrubbing means that districts reported taking students off the books, when they knew the students performed poorly on state tests. By weeding out the underperformers, the schools did better on state reports.
While Yost declined to speculate about why districts have twisted the data, he said that the scrubbing helped the districts.
"If you're able to remove a portion of those students, mathematically, your score has to go up," Yost said.
Yost said that the Columbus City School District could have scrubbed as many as 10,000 students.
Ten Columbus middle schools, including Westmoor Middle School, were among the schools that had issues concerning missing files or students who had been listed as truant.
Yost said that truancy involved a process which includes legal action, meaning a local school district alone cannot say a student is no longer enrolled.
Superintendent Gene Harris, who announced her retirement last month in the midst of the scandal, said that the policy was news to her.
"My take away from the interim report is that it confirms that districts across the state, not just Columbus, believe that it was permissible under the state guidelines to withdraw students for non-attendance, even though no truancy charges were prosecuted," Harris said.
The district's attorney told 10TV News that he was startled to hear Yost's interpretation of the truancy procedure.
Harris said earlier that none of the allegations could be linked to the district's gain-sharing program, an incentive that gave bonuses to staff for improving student performance.
"I have a great deal of respect for the auditor and what he is trying to do, but I will tell you, there is strong, and a very fundamental disagreement on this point," the district's attorney said.
She said that she never encouraged staff to manipulate data and said that that the state auditor would shed light on what might have gone wrong.
Yost would not comment on whether he believed Harris.
"Our work is ongoing in Columbus, and that's not part of our interim report," Yost said.
The auditor said that his office has spent $284,150 and 6,930 hours on the audit thus far.
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