Attendance 'scrubbing' tempts low-ranked schools
Feb 23, 2013 at 11:20 AM
In Ohio, a recent state audit uncovered nine districts that withdrew students retroactively or improperly reported they were attending alternative programs. In one instance, Auditor Dave Yost said, a district ignored state rules "because they didn't like them."
It's all part of a percolating national saga in which grown-ups — not kids — are the ones accused of cheating. Temptations to "scrubbing," the process of improperly fixing enrollment or attendance data to somehow improve a building's situation, can include rosier district report cards, added state or federal funding and employee bonuses.
"I think it is influenced by the high-stakes accountability environment that we're in right now. It's raised the stakes," said Gary Crow, a professor of educational leadership at Indiana University. "It used to be when you take a standardized test and your students did well or didn't do well, it influenced your teaching, of course, but it didn't get connected directly to your pay, or your job security, or those kinds of things. Well, now, in a lot of places it does."
It is also easier to identify such cases in the increasingly data-driven world of education, although they remain isolated. An added factor, Crow said, is that educators and policymakers are often at odds over the effectiveness of standardized tests and other performance measures.
States' reactions range from tolerant to tough. Some cite evolving record-keeping technology and reporting requirements. Others pursue prosecutions. That has meant mixed messages for administrators on a staple of the school day: who shows up, and where.
Some educators have fought back, citing the onslaught of tracking questions brought on by school choice as well as rapidly changing state and federal rules.
In Columbus, a student's father alleges in a lawsuit that a series of improper withdrawals of low-performing students caused his daughter's home school to rise in academic status, making her ineligible for a state voucher that allows students in failing institutions to attend better schools.
Losing the voucher meant that 15-year-old Kailey Beard's $9,000 tuition to a nearby private school was no longer covered — and that she couldn't play sports. Having a voucher allows the yearlong waiting period imposed on transferring athletes to be waived. It was a bitter blow to Kailey, who had dreamed of being a basketball star since she was 6.
"It's just been a really hard couple of years," said Kailey, whose family is springing for her tuition but who can't play basketball for now. "I go to the games, I practice with the team, but I mean, it was hard because the coach put the players in who were actually going to be playing. So I sat on the sidelines a lot of times during practice."
East High, Kailey's home school, is part of the Columbus City Schools, which is under investigation by state and federal authorities for the alleged attendance scrubbing. Her father, Jon Beard, has filed one of two parent lawsuits over the matter.
In the district's defense, spokesman Jeff Warner noted Columbus is a populous urban district with a high rate of student mobility and many charter schools for students to move to and from. The "sheer volume" makes tracking difficult, he said, and state and federal attendance reporting rules at times contradict.
Law enforcers predict criminal prosecutions. The district's former accountability director and a regional executive director, both figures in the probe, are retiring. Superintendent Gene Harris also is leaving at the end of the school year, in a decision she and her supporters say is unrelated.
In a Missouri case, Esperansa Veal, the principal of Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis, Mo., was placed on administrative leave after a state auditor's investigation was launched into attendance practices in 2011.
The audit found the elementary school appeared to have altered data to boost attendance figures, which determine the school's state funding allotment. Veal's employment with the district ended in September 2011, two days after Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich released his report.
A district spokesman declined to say why Veal's employment ended, citing confidentiality of personnel records. Veal was not criminally charged, according to Missouri's online court records.
After the incident, Schweich ordered attendance records included in future routine reviews. A spokesman said that's not turned up any further irregularities.
With a Texas scandal involving the El Paso Independent School District, attendance manipulation turned criminal.
In October, former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was sentenced to 42 months in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of fraud in a scheme to bolster standardized test scores by getting rid of students likely to fail.
Garcia helped orchestrate a scheme that prevented low-performing students from taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam in the 10th grade because its results counted toward state and federal ratings. Some students were held back in the ninth grade or pressured to drop out and take the GED elsewhere. Others were threatened with fines for living outside the district.
The FBI continues to investigate, with six other people implicated so far in the scandal. State education officials have placed the district on probation and named a new district board of trustees.
After allegations of grade tampering at Douglass Mid-High School, the Oklahoma City Public Schools asked an investigator to explore "whether grade tampering and attendance inflation occurred with the intent of fraudulently obtaining additional funding or personal incentives."
Inaccurate attendance records were found, but no fraud aimed at financial gain.
The probe did cite "extreme measures" taken by building leaders to cover up unethical practices, including manipulation of enrollment and attendance records to reflect students had completed courses that they hadn't. Douglass Principal Brian Staples was placed on administrative leave and later resigned.
When Arizona Auditor General Debbie Davenport's "limited reviews" uncovered inaccuracies in attendance data reporting in 2006, she recommended a system to ensure data accuracy followed by adjustments to local district payments from the $5 billion in federal and state dollars the department controlled. No one was accused of wrongdoing.