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Feds cite Clayton Schools for underreported data

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

In an audit released earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General accused Clayton County Public Schools, and the Georgia Department of Education, of underreporting student dropouts, and discipline incidents to a federal data-reporting system three years ago.

The audit looked at dropout and discipline data from the 2006-2007 school year that was provided by Clayton County Public Schools to the Georgia Department of Education, who in turn, forwarded it to the U.S. Department of Education, for its EDFacts system.

The audit shows that students, who dropped out of school, went unreported by Clayton Schools officials, while some pupils did not come to school for more than a quarter of the school year, and were never listed as having withdrawn or dropped out of school. Several disciplinary incidents were also misclassified, lacked supporting documentation, or just never were reported to the state, according to the audit.

"We found that neither CCPS, nor GaDOE established adequate systems of internal control to ensure that accurate, reliable, and complete data were entered in EDFacts," U.S. Department of Education Regional Inspector General Denise Wempe wrote in an April 7 letter to Georgia Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox, explaining the audit findings. "As a result, CCPS and GaDOE reported inaccurate or unsupported data, including dropouts, graduates, and discipline incidents."

In her letter to Cox, Wempe said the underreporting of data is significant, because the U.S. Department of Education makes planning, policy and management decisions based on data state education departments provide to the EDFacts system.

According to Wempe's letter, Clayton County Public Schools could not provide documentation to show that nine students, listed as dropouts, had in fact dropped out of school; did not have documentation showing two graduates, out of a sampling of 20 pupils, had met graduation requirements; did not have any documentation for 15 students who had missed more than 50 consecutive days of school, and had not been listed as either, withdrawals or dropouts; had 99 students listed as transferring out of the school system when they actually fit the U.S. Department of Education's definition of a dropout.

The school system also misclassified, or in some cases, could not provide documentation to support classifying 21 out of 39 discipline incidents in the areas in which they were classified, Wempe said. Auditors looked at discipline incidents classified as battery, sexual battery, and fighting, according to the regional inspector general's letter.

Documentation was missing for two cases of battery, two cases of sexual battery, and 10 cases of fighting, according to Wempe's letter. Wempe also wrote that 4,110, out of 4,134 disciplinary incidents were not reported to the Georgia Department of Education. Of those 4,110 incidents, 148 were deemed "violent incidents," she said.

Catherine Grant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General, said the office does not release the reasons for its audits to the public, citing office policy. She said, however, similar audits had been planned for school systems in other states, but those audits have been put on hold because of work the office is doing to keep track of education-related, federal stimulus funding.

Wempe also criticized the Georgia Department of Education for not catching the discrepancies in Clayton County's reported data. "Based on the findings at CCPS, GaDOE could be receiving the same type of inaccurate data from its remaining LEAs [Local Education Agencies]," the regional inspector general wrote.

Georgia Department of Education Spokesman Matt Cardoza said state officials are arguing that the audit, itself, was faulty, because it involved data that was collected before data-related policy reforms that were implemented by the Georgia Department of Education last year.

Cardoza said the crux of the state department's argument is focused on the age of the data, and the Office of Inspector General's assertion that more school system's may be providing incorrect data is based on what was found in one Georgia school system.

"First, this is an audit of old data, and we did a pretty big policy overhaul and provided guidance to school systems on how to better report this data," Cardoza said. "Second, it is a little hard to say this problem is systemic [throughout the state], based on one school system."

Cardoza said policy reforms implemented last year require school systems to provide documentation for any students they report as transfers. Guidance on how to properly code students, who leave a school, has also been provided to local school systems, he said.

The Office of Inspector General is recommending that the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development instruct Clayton County Public Schools, and the Georgia Department of Education, to:

* Establish internal control systems to ensure dropouts are properly identified and reported, and supporting documentation is maintained.

* Maintain official student records, including documentation showing students have met all graduation requirements.

* Establish internal control systems to ensure discipline incidents required to be reported to the State and EDFacts are properly identified and reported, and supporting documentation is maintained.

The Office of Inspector General is also recommending the U.S. Department of Education instruct the Georgia Department of Education, alone, to:

* Follow up on issues identified in Clayton County Public Schools, and correct the data.

* Establish internal control systems to ensure the accurate classification of non-persistently dangerous school discipline incidents.

* Require state Department of Education program reviewers to test EDFacts reported data for accuracy.

* Require documentation from Special Education program reviewers about what is obtained, and reviewed, during program reviews in local school districts.

The Office of Inspector General is also recommending that the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development instruct the Governor's Office of Student Achievement to:

* Review education data reported by a "sufficient number" of LEAs each year.

Cardoza said the Georgia Department of Education's recent policy reforms already took care of the issue, however. "What we would do is what we've already done," he said.

In a written statement, Clayton County Public Schools Spokesman Charles White said the district has accepted the findings from the audit, and school system staff evaluated the issues raised in the audit, in an effort to come up with a way to prevent them from occurring again.

According to White, steps taken to improve the accuracy of dropout reporting, include: Providing schools with comprehensive lists of withdrawal codes; implementing a system where students with excessive absences are reported to their school's principal, and social worker, and spot checks of data by representatives from the school system's Department of Student Support Services.

White said the school system revised discipline data reporting by: Developing and distributing a district-wide discipline referral form; clarifying disciplinary definitions for administrators; implementing a monitoring system to verify that correct discipline codes are used; establishing a team of school system employees to review discipline codes, by comparing them against state reporting requirements, and mandating any incidents which result in a student receiving in-school suspension be reported to district and state officials.

"We will not hesitate to institute new or revised strategies as needed to achieve full compliance," White said.