By Jennifer Smith Richards

Four more Ohio school districts manipulated their student data, and the findings are being turned over to federal officials, State Auditor Dave Yost announced yesterday as he released the results of his statewide attendance investigation.

That brings to nine the number of districts the auditor has identified as having "scrubbed" student data, perhaps in an attempt to inflate their state report-card grades. In all, Ohio has 614 school districts.

The nine districts improperly withdrew and re-enrolled students during the 2010-11 school year to remove their test scores and absences from calculations used by the state in producing report cards, Yost said.

Cincinnati, the state's most-improved large urban district, was added to the list of "scrubbers" yesterday. So were Canton, Northridge in Montgomery County, and Winton Woods in Hamilton County. Columbus, Cleveland, Marion, Toledo and Campbell in Mahoning County had been named in an interim report in October.

Many of the nine districts insist they've done nothing wrong. Even as Yost sends his findings to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General and asks the Ohio Department of Education to recalculate those districts' report cards, some say that he doesn't understand the rules, and some have implied that they made honest mistakes.

Yost said yesterday that when districts made honest mistakes, auditors indicated as much. The nine districts don't fit into the honest-mistake category, he said.

"My conclusion is they knew better, and, for their own reasons, they chose not to comply" with data-reporting rules, Yost said.

He had stronger words for the Columbus schools. The district is being investigated separately by the auditor and the FBI. Staff members also appear to have changed students' grades, he said.

"There is evidence that indicates an intent to deceive both (the state Department of Education) and the parents of this district," Yost said.

He chided Columbus officials for their inaction; they have "ample evidence" already, he said, thanks to the report the district's internal auditor issued in December.

"I'm calling upon the school board to stand up and lead," Yost said. "The children's future is at risk here. The time to act to repair these things is now."

Columbus spokesman Jeff Warner repeated that the district is waiting on the auditor's final report on Columbus and will take "appropriate action" then.

The statewide review of districts' student-data practices began in July after The Dispatch reported that Columbus had been retroactively altering its student data.

Soon afterward, Toledo admitted that it had, too.

The state Education Department found that Lockland near Cincinnati had altered data, and it downgraded the district's report-card ratings.

Even a brief withdrawal from school between October and spring means that a district isn't held responsible for that student's test scores or absences.

Although auditors found that all nine districts systemically "scrubbed," the districts used different methods.

The investigation found that Cincinnati withdrew students whenever they transferred from one district school to another. Toledo summarily withdrew students after they had accrued a certain number of absences; many of those students had performed poorly on state tests.

Cleveland withdrew students as truants after they had missed five days without an excuse.

Northridge marked students as home-schoolers when they weren't. Canton is said to have withdrawn students when it referred them to an alternative program within the district.

In an email to the auditor's office, Canton Superintendent Adrian Allison lamented that Canton " will be lumped into a report about districts and schools that intentionally manipulated data to improve their results on the Report Card."

"The one thing I am sure about is that there was no data 'scrubbing' in Canton City Schools," Allison wrote.

Cincinnati balked at Yost's finding that it made its own set of rules. "We are not aware of any intentional data-manipulation and respectfully disagree with some of the report's findings," said Cincinnati spokeswoman Janet Walsh in an email.

Similarly, Marion Superintendent James Barney said his district didn't summarily withdraw students with high absentee rates. It did counsel struggling students into an alternative program, but contrary to the report's findings, it did not withdraw them from the high school without their consent, Barney said.

"None of this mattered to the auditor, only that it 'appeared' we were scrubbing," Barney said in an email.

The investigation holds the state Education Department accountable, too. It has provided too little oversight, the report says. Also, some rules need to be made clearer so that districts can't mistake their meaning, Yost said.

He made 13 recommendations to the department. Among them: The department should be able to match student data to student names so that it can verify whether students actually are withdrawn. Yost also said schools shouldn't be allowed to see their projected report-card grade before they have finished submitting student data. Schools now submit test scores and other data and can see a preliminary calculation of report-card grades. That encourages them to fiddle with data until they get the desired grade, Yost said. The report says Toledo did that.

"We're greatly concerned that any school district would knowingly disregard rules for collecting and submitting their data to the Ohio Department of Education," said Michael Sawyers, acting state superintendent. "It's unfortunate that a few have tainted so many."

Sawyers said the department is prepared to pick up the investigation and recalculate schools' report cards. Yost said he'll hand over all his investigation materials to the department. The federal inspector general's office will be involved because it's possible that federal rules -- particularly those tied to No Child Left Behind or the Race to the Top grant money -- were broken, Yost said.

He said that if the federal agency finds criminal wrongdoing, it will work with federal prosecutors. That way, potential charges would be the same no matter what county the school district is in. Columbus is different. There's enough evidence in the state's largest district to warrant criminal referrals at both the local and federal level, Yost said. But he still can't say when the investigation will be completed.

"I hope to complete this before I die," he joked wryly. "We're pushing to try to move this along just as fast as we possibly can."

(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)