TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: An absence of ethics — taking the roll of school attendance fraud

For at least half a decade, school officials in Columbus, Ohio, carried out an inventive method of reducing the rate of student absenteeism.

They erased the absences. Tens of thousands of them.

As documented in a special report by the Columbus Dispatch, Columbus schools were able to inflate their rankings in state performance statistics by “re-enrolling” students with poor attendance — basically, pushing the “reset” button as if the student just showed up in mid-year with a clean attendance slate. And the problem didn’t stop there. State auditors have concluded that at least 48, and possibly as many as 57, Ohio school districts have serious enough flaws in their attendance statistics to require corrected reports.

Attendance fraud is not a new phenomenon, nor one invented in Ohio. Fifteen years ago, New York City school officials became suspicious of too-good-to-be true attendance at well-regarded Brandeis High School. They opened an investigation that concluded the school’s principal had presided over a pad-the-attendance-rolls scheme that entitled the school to undeserved extra funding to hire more employees (and that embellished the principal’s miracle-worker reputation).

Because of the immense financial pressure on school districts — pressure that is only amplified by the growing trend toward rating, ranking and rewarding everything measurable but the principal’s shoe size — it would be unsurprising to learn that there are many more Columbus school districts out there across the country.

A starting point for records-hounds is to request data reflecting trends in absenteeism over several years’ time. Compare your own school against those you consider your competitors — or against others of similar size and student makeup elsewhere in the state. Many state departments of education gather this data annually, and a few forward-thinking ones publish the information online. (For example, this report available from the Illinois State Board of Education provides each school’s total attendance days — the sum of all days attended by all students — and total absence days, or days missed by all students combined.)

For additional national perspective, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University published an informative study last year, “The Importance of Being in School,” that concludes that, based on case studies from districts across the country, at least 10 percent of the 50 million K-12 school children in America “are not attending school regularly.”

State audits are a valuable potential source of information. This 2011 audit of St. Louis’ Patrick Henry Downtown Academy reported that, under orders from the principal, school employees “cleaned up” the school’s attendance record by converting absences into tardies — a practice that helped keep the school from falling behind the “Adequate Yearly Progress” that must be shown to stay in good graces under the federal “No Child Left Behind” program.

Statistical trends are easily turned into eye-catching graphics and interactives. Last year, the Augusta Chronicle built a very cool searchable database using data from the state Department of Education that lets users compare the reported rate of absenteeism among local schools. The database focuses on the problem of “chronically absent” students, those missing 15 days or more in any single school year.

If your school or district has an unusually high rate, it’s time to start asking why. Are socioeconomic factors — poor health, unstable families, high pregnancy rates — to blame? Are enforcement efforts lacking? Are the schools perceived as unsafe — or just boring?

And if your school or district has an abnormally low rate, then it’s time to start asking a different set of questions. The story may be a “good news” one — that the school has unusually effective follow-up to keep occasional truants from becoming habitual ones — or, occasionally, it may be a Brandeis High School story. Either way, it’s a story that needs telling.