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Attendance data ‘scrubbing’ tempts low-ranked schools

Temptations toward attendance data “scrubbing” can include rosier district report cards, added state or federal funding, and employee bonuses.

A former superintendent went to prison in Texas for conspiring to remove low-performing students from classrooms to boost average test scores. Principals in Oklahoma and Missouri are out of their jobs after attendance-related scandals.

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 [it] 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 toward attendance data “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 policy makers 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.

(Next page: A closer look at the phenomenon of attendance data scrubbing)

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