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Changing How Data Are Reported Would Solve Many Schools' Problems
By: Auditor of State Dave Yost
Kids love to go to school in their pajamas. So when you’ve absolutely, positively got to get a kid to school, make the day Pajama Day.
That’s only one of the odd innovations schools have come up with to boost attendance during Count Week — a once-a-year, high-stakes census that determines how much money each school gets from the state. There are many others, ranging from pizza parties to advertising to School Spirit Week.
Ohio sends cash to local school systems based on the number of students in the school during Count Week in October each year. September doesn’t matter, and you don’t need to remember November — or January or February. Good attendance during one week locks in a year of state funding.
Money changes things. It drives behavior, frames decisions and affects thinking — sometimes in ways we don’t foresee or want. That’s one of the things I discovered during our statewide audit of attendance practices in schools.
Ohio should count kids every day, not once a year. A year-long financial incentive would drive attendance every day. The good news is that we know how to get the kids in school. Lining up the financial incentives with the goal of regular attendance would help keep the effort going.
Counting kids every day also would provide a penalty for “scrubbing” — the practice of artificially interrupting a child’s reported attendance, which removes his test scores from the school’s annual grade card. Under an every-day counting system, if the child isn’t in school, the money wouldn't flow.
It’s not the only change we need, though. I was shocked to find out that Ohio law prohibits the Ohio Department of Education from knowing the names of the children in its schools.
That’s right. It’s illegal for the department to know the names of Ohio’s students or other personal identification information. It’s an old law that was a reasonable compromise to allay privacy concerns when Ohio first started to collect data. But it’s a crazy way to do business in 2013.
Here’s how it works now: The Ohio Department of Education contracts with an outside company to run a data warehouse. The company gets to know the names and all the personal information of the kids. The company then assigns each child a number, which is transmitted to the department and entered into an almost-identical data warehouse. The department gets all the information about the child, except name and personal identifying information.
This strange system — it costs about $750,000 a year — makes it extraordinarily difficult for the department to oversee the integrity of attendance data. Our increasingly mobile society makes it harder. For example, we know that there are children who have multiple numbers, increasing the potential for errors in the data.
And that data is the basis for the report cards, which in turn form the basis for many decisions about resources and sanctions.
Let’s repeal this law. Governments handle confidential information all the time — just try to get your neighbor’s tax information, or even your own grandchild’s grades. We can write privacy protections in the law that will take the blindfold off of the watchdog.
Our audit report is available online, and it contains other ideas — a total of 13 recommendations for the department and the Legislature.
Ohio is trying to measure how well our schools do and make rational decisions based on the data. That’s a good thing. But the data have to be accurate — and have to mean the same thing from place to place.
In nine districts, administrations played fast and loose with the definitions and rules. One school district dis-enrolled kids who were locked up for crimes and told the department of education they transferred to a charter school. Other schools reported that kids had moved to another district — even though they hadn’t.
One superintendent told auditors that she didn’t like the department’s definitions and rules, so her district made its own. While I appreciate the candor, it means the data is wrong — it’s mixing apples and porcupines.
There were many other examples, but the common theme is that the way the kids were reported to the state meant the kids’ test results didn’t count on the local schools’ report cards.
Ohio can do better.
This op-ed appeared in The Columbus Dispatch on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013.
The Auditor of State’s office, one of five independently elected statewide offices in Ohio, is responsible for auditing more than 5,600 state and local government agencies. Under the direction of Auditor Dave Yost, the office also provides financial services to local governments, investigates and prevents fraud in public agencies and promotes transparency in government.