A serious mess: Ohio's school-data scandal has profound ripple effects

Last week, Ohio’s State Board of Education voted unanimously to delay the release of annual school performance report cards as state officials investigate allegations of data-tampering. It came to light this summer that some Ohio school districts (Auditor of State Dave Yost is working to determine just how many) retroactively un-enrolled and re-enrolled truant or low-performing students in order to break the students’ enrollment records with the district. Those students’ test scores and attendance records would then not count toward the district’s overall report card rating because the students hadn’t been continuously enrolled from October to spring testing. (To be clear, there is no evidence yet that data-tampering was taking place in all, or even most, of the state’s 600+ districts, and there is conflicting opinion about whether the data changes were actually on the up and up.)

The state board’s decision was the right one. They simply cannot make public extensive data about school performance unless they have faith in the accuracy of that information. However, the decision has widespread ramifications for Ohio’s districts, schools, and students. There are a number of policy provisions triggered by the annual report cards and the test data they are based on that will now be put on hold while the state awaits Auditor Yost’s findings.

Five major accountability policies are affected:

  1. Which schools are subject to mandatory turnaround: Public schools are ranked annually based on student achievement on state tests. Schools that land in the bottom five percent for three consecutive years, and which are rated D or F by the state, are subject to reconstitution.
  2. Which charter-school authorizers may open new schools: Similar to how schools are ranked, Ohio’s 70-some authorizers are ranked by their schools’ achievement, and the bottom twenty percent are not permitted to take on new schools the following school year.
  3. Which students are eligible for private school vouchers: Students whose address-assigned school has been rated D or F by the state for two of the past three years are eligible for one of 60,000 state-funded scholarships to attend private school instead.
  4. Where new charter schools can open: New, start-up charter schools may open only in Ohio’s eight large urban districts, in districts rated D or F by the state, or in districts that fall in the bottom five percent of all schools, based on student achievement.
  5. Which districts are eligible for a high-performance subsidy: The state pays an additional $17 per student to districts and charter schools that are rated A or A+ by the state.

Additionally, smaller decisions and policies are impacted. For example:

  • Districts will be delayed in reporting academic progress for special initiatives and grants, like Race to the Top.
  • Charter school authorizers will have less time to review school performance data to inform decisions about opening schools, closing them, or putting them on probation.
  • While schools do have access to their raw achievement data via a secure online portal, they will not have any information about value-added progress until the data issue is resolved.
  • Schools are required to give a copy of their most recent report card to parents when they enroll their child in the school. Until the new report cards come out, schools will have to distribute old report cards.
  • Parents and taxpayers will have less time to consider school performance information to help them make decisions about where to send children to school and how to vote on November’s school levies.
  • Schools that are early implementers of Ohio’s teacher evaluation mandate (which goes into effect for all schools next year) will be delayed in their efforts to incorporate student data into those evaluations; subsequent personnel decisions may be delayed as well.

If the auditor winds down his investigation soon and confirmed data are released, this delay will have been more of a frustration than a serious impediment to various school improvement and accountability efforts (online guidance from ODE suggests this will be the case). But that’s a best-case scenario. What if the investigation lingers on, past the fall? Or worse, what if the auditor finds that some districts have been tampering with enrollment records for years? That could call into question more than a decade of school performance data and the state and local decisions that were made based on them.

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