The Ohio auditor's office on Thursday launched a statewide investigation into how attendance is reported by schools and the state Department of Education.
The move comes following allegations that the Columbus, Toledo and Lockland school systems cheated on student attendance records to boost overall school and district grades.
By engaging in a practice called "scrubbing," the districts are accused of intentionally dropping students from attendance rolls, and then re-enrolling them later in the year. Scores for students who are not continuously enrolled between October and the testing dates in March and May are not considered in a school or district's report card -- thus yielding room for officials to "scrub" poor-performing students from being factored into the institutions' and systems' overall scores.
In a letter to the president of the state Board of Education, Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost wrote Thursday that his office will undertake a statewide examination of attendance reporting policies and study why the state Department of Education was unaware of wrongdoing in what may be a systemic problem across Ohio.
"That raises the question of what role [the Ohio Department of Education] played during the time that false reports were made by multiple schools," Yost wrote, according to The Plain Dealer. "There is no evidence at this time that anyone at ODE is involved in the attendance report rigging, but the apparently widespread nature of the practice begs the question of at least a lack of oversight."
It's currently unclear how the role of the state's Education Department could change based on Yost's findings. State Superintendent Stan Heffner told the Associated Press that he has launched an independent investigation, which may lead to criminal charges against educators and officials who committed fraud.
Yost's letter came just after the conclusion of an investigation into Lockland schools, concluding that the district falsified data for 36 students during the 2010-2011 school year that yielded artificially higher scores for the district, WLWT reports.
The state has reduced the district's academic standing, and sanctions may be filed against some staff.
The Columbus Dispatch reports that over the last 5.5 years, 2.8 million student absences were wiped from district computers -- more than they reported to the state. During the 2009-2010 school year, 627,446 absences were erased, while just 449,168 of them were reported to the state.
In a statement Thursday, the Ohio Department of Education asserts its belief in the integrity of data.
"When it is misused we want the investigation to go wherever it leads," the statement read, according to the Toledo Blade. "As always, we welcome the involvement of the State Auditor and will continue our working relationship with them."
Altering attendance records, which tend to be tied to school and district report cards and affect funding, is not a new phenomenon. Last September, a Missouri audit found that the principal of a St. Louis school falsified attendance numbers for three years to meet federal requirements and attain more funding.
Absences were often changed to tardies, and out-of-school suspensions weren't recorded as absences, which could have helped the school meet Adequate Yearly Progress requirements mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act, and could have earned the school more funding -- the district can receive about $20 per student per day in state dollars.
Also by falsifying attendance sheets, leading test-prep company The Princeton Review was accused in May of fraudulently claiming "millions of dollars" of federal money for tutoring services it never provided to hundreds of underprivileged students in New York City.
The company and some of its employees forged student signatures, falsified sign-in sheets and provided fake certifications to "deceitfully profit from a well-meaning program," the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said in a statement. The program was paid between $35 and $75 an hour for each student it claimed to tutor.
In a statement, the Princeton Review did not deny the claims but noted that the alleged improprieties are in the company's past -- and ended when its Supplemental Educations Services division was discontinued in 2010. The company says it is working with prosecutors to resolve the charges and none of the employees or executives involved in the program are still with the company.