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CCS data manipulation

Yost's view: 'The adults wanted to look good'

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Those involved in the data manipulation scandal at Columbus City Schools didn't do it for personal gain, according to Ohio Auditor Dave Yost.

"The adults wanted to look good," he said last week. "How awful is that?"

In fairly blunt language for an elected official, the onetime Delaware County prosecutor outlined for members of the Northland Area Business Association the "scam" that began to come to light when The Columbus Dispatch first published a story about student-attendance data irregularities June 15, 2012. Yost's office began an investigation 13 days later, as did the Ohio Department of Education.

On Jan. 15 this year, Yost publicly released an audit by his investigators that found widespread instances of student-data fraud at several schools, including altered attendance records and changes made to hundreds of grades.

A representative of the auditor's office was initially scheduled to address the association's quarterly luncheon March 11, but when Yost discovered he was available, he decided to honor the commitment himself.

Columbus City Schools used to be held up as a shining example of an urban district in Ohio that was "making it," Yost told his audience.

"It turns out they weren't doing as well as we thought," he said.

Yost only briefly touched on the school scandal during his remarks, but warmed to the subject when asked to comment on the "incredible hypocrisy" shown by some district personnel.

In discussing what the auditor's office does, Yost said that while special prosecutors from his staff can help out with criminal prosecutions when alleged wrongdoing is uncovered, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien is handling the school investigation and will be the one to file any charges.

"I think he's going to have a satisfactory conclusion to that, when all is said and done," Yost told NABA members.

When it comes to assessing how well schools and school districts are educating students -- grading them, in other words -- federal rules say it's not fair to count test scores of kids not attending classes, and it isn't, Yost said. But those same rules created an opportunity for some district officials to identify students who would not do well on tests, he continued. According to Yost, these officials "broke enrollment" of many such students with no legal justification, and then re-enrolled them after their test scores would no longer be counted.

He likened the practice to a professional football team that drops the 40-yard dash times of linemen and then averages the rest, appearing to be the fastest in the league.

"It got worse," Yost said.

Ohio Department of Education officials send reports of test scores and attendance records back to school districts in late May each year to be checked for accuracy. This information enables local officials to readily determine the eventual grade their district will receive, he indicated.

"They're given all the data and asked, 'Do we need to change any of this?' " Yost said.

Educators who opted to do so in order to improve their grade set a truly bad example of cheating for students, and also did them "real and immediate harm," according to Yost.

By improving the test scores to keep a school from receiving a failing grade, officials denied students the chance to receive a voucher to continue their education elsewhere. Also, federal funds are available to pay for reading tutors at failing schools, but students who needed and were entitled to that help didn't receive tutoring because of the data manipulation, he added.

Yost was asked if the CCS audit showed the district was top-heavy with administrators. He replied that the kind of performance audit that determines proper staffing levels for local government is only conducted by invitation.

"We find sometimes that staffing is too high," he said during his opening remarks. "Sometimes, not real often, we'll find a government that is understaffed; they don't have enough people to do the work."

In the case of Columbus schools, Yost said at the end of his presentation, there probably were too many administrators, but he added that Superintendent J. Daniel Good has taken steps to put more people in teaching roles and fewer working at the central office.

"It's a trend that needs to continue," Yost said.

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