Audit reveals problems with student records

The state is ordering a comprehensive review of the records of recent East Baton Rouge Parish public high school graduates after a limited audit, completed last week, found that some students earned grades or credits that differed from those the school system reported to the state.

The audit, made public Sunday night, also looks at whether some students listed as transferring elsewhere should be considered dropouts, and probes deeply into a case, which sparked the audit, where a student was allowed to graduate despite lacking the necessary credits.

State Superintendent of Education John White said the mismatch between teacher grades and those reported to the Louisiana Department of Education’s transcript database could be inadvertent errors, or in a small number of cases, intentional fraud by principals and other school leaders.

The state agency has told the school system it has until April 4 to develop a corrective action plan to prevent such problems from recurring.

“The LDOE takes these findings very seriously,” the audit states. “The procedures undertaken as part of this audit were common practices, but the severity and breadth of the findings are uncommon and, in many cases, troubling.”

White said such problems are easily fixed.

“This stuff is not hard, to say that when a teacher gives an A to put it in the system as an A,” White said.

White relayed the findings Friday morning to East Baton Rouge Parish School Board President David Tatman and Vice President Tarvald Smith.

At Tatman’s request, White said he is planning to sit down Monday morning with parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor to explain the findings to him as well.

“(The school system) has fully cooperated with (the state’s) records audit by making records and staff available and will continue to do so, including with any other agencies involved with the matter,” Taylor said in a statement released Sunday night.

He said the school system already is working on a corrective action plan, which will include establishing audit teams, mandatory training for school administrators and an internal tracking system to track students who exit the school system.

White said he sent copies of the audit to the state inspector general and the legislative auditor for possible further investigation.

White said the two state investigative agencies, which have the findings, are better equipped to dig deeper into specific areas of potential wrongdoing, including possible falsified records, destroyed records and potential misuse of public funds.

“We’re not an investigative agency,” White said.

“This audit does not ascribe motives to any of the individuals mentioned. It simply describes what happened.”

On Jan. 9, White launched the records audit of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system after he said he learned from multiple, unidentified sources about a “discrepancy in graduation records,” which school system officials have identified as one student who graduated in May, but whom they later determined was one credit short.

The announcement provoked much controversy and speculation about what White was really looking into, including reports he was examining student cheating on tests, which White belatedly denied.

Several elected and community leaders sympathetic to the school system held a Jan. 15 news conference where they blamed White for not doing enough to quell such speculation earlier.

The audit released Sunday is partly a probe of the incident with the student who was wrongly allowed to graduate and the implications of that incident, and partly a check of graduation records for all students.

The audit checked graduation records for all students from 2009 to 2013.

To check the accuracy of grades and credits, auditors pulled the records of 5 percent of the graduates of that four-year period, a total of 362 students.

One out of four records, about 90, had inconsistencies, according to the audit.

Still, only 27, or about 7 percent, involved a mismatch between the grades or credits given by the teacher and those later reported to the state.

The rest were instances of bad school-level record keeping, including missing grades and transcripts. Sometimes even entire student folders, known as cumulative folders, were missing.

Of the 15 high schools that auditors visited, three had no records problems: Arlington Preparatory Academy, Baton Rouge Magnet High and Woodlawn High schools.

In his statement, Taylor said 13 of 15 schools had no or only “minor inconsistencies.”

McKinley High School had the most problems. The school accounted for 11 of the 27 students whose grades or credits did not match those in a state transcript database.

Auditors found 30 students lacked documentation of grades and 11 did not have the required cumulative folders.

Glen Oaks High also had many problems. It did its own review of the Class of 2013 and found six recent graduates who lacked the necessary credits to graduate, and 11 more who should have received different diplomas.

Central Office personnel were faulted for not double-checking the accuracy of grades, credits and diplomas awarded by school principals.

Auditors also found the school system almost never verified that students who transferred elsewhere, particularly schools in other states, enrolled in their new schools.

If the school system can’t substantiate these transfers, the schools will have to reclassify these students as dropouts, thereby lowering a school’s graduation rate; graduation rates account for half of a high school’s performance score.

Once the state and the school system complete the comprehensive review of graduation records, the state may decide to recalculate individual school performance scores for years past as well as scores for the entire school system.

In its examination of the student who should not have been allowed to graduate, the audit offers more detail, complete with a timeline of events, but few conclusions about this complicated tale.

The student, who was not named, but who graduated from Glen Oaks High School in May, has since gone on to an unnamed state college.

A school counselor new to Glen Oaks first flagged the problem on Sept. 27.

The audit finds instances where senior leaders in the school system took “inappropriate action,” including one staff member who was “directed” to delete emails dealing with the matter, though the audit does not describe the contents of the deleted emails.

“Telling employees to suppress records is a serious concern to us,” White said.

The audit also faulted the school system for failing to take what it describes as “documentable action” in connection with the student until after the state launched the audit in January.

In January, Taylor told The Advocate that the school system reported the problem to the state in the fall soon after it came to light and had reassigned employees who were at fault.