Compton Unified’s sharp attendance jump: Too good to be true?

Jan. 22

By Chris Reed

The SIA Cabinet Report education news site has a report up about a stunning jump in attendance at Compton Unified schools:

“The K-12 district of some 25,000 pupils reported an increase during the 2011-12 school year in average daily attendance of 1.5 percent. Compton officials say they are hopeful of making at least another 1 percent improvement in the current year.

“The numbers may not sound like much, but state officials point out that fluctuations in school attendance are typically measured in the hundredths of a percent, with bigger movements often taking years to evolve.

“’We tell districts when they are starting out to make attendance a priority that a good goal is a 1 percent improvement in ADA,’ said David Kopperud, a consultant with the California Department of Education who helps oversee student attendance programs.

“’If they can do that – that’s a real achievement,’ he explained. ‘Anytime a district increases ADA above 1 percent – that’s exceptional.’”

Inexplicably, the report waits until the 10th paragraph to explain why this is so significant.

“The better attendance also proved a windfall to the district’s coffers as state school funding is based on ADA. Thus, the one-year jump resulted in an additional $2 million for Compton schools.”

An incentive to defraud taxpayers

Put another way, school districts have a financial incentive to overreport ADA — average daily attendance. And so when an extraordinary increase comes along, such as the one seen in Compton, it’s not cynical to wonder if the books are being fudged. I wrote about ADA fraud for CalWatchdog in February 2012 as part of a larger piece on the pervasive moral bankruptcy of California’s education establishment:

“There are even scams that the public isn’t broadly aware of, such as those involving the basic funding mechanism for California schools. Districts are reimbursed based on the Average Daily Attendance at campuses, with reimbursements being higher for troubled and pregnant students than for regular students.

“What does this disparity lead school officials to do? You guessed it. To classify more students as troublemakers and as pregnant to get more money.

“In 1995 and 1996, when I was a columnist for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, I did several interviews with an investigator for the state Department of Finance who said ADA fraud was rampant. Subsequent poking around led me to two school principals who wouldn’t go on the record because of fear of ruining their careers, but who said that some districts made up numbers as they went along.”

Compton Unified’s attendance figures may be accurate. The SI&A Cabinet Report story says boosting ADA was a goal of school leaders:

“District officials say a variety of strategies are being employed to help boost student attendance. One key, said Brawley, is better communication between teachers and administrators with parents and students.

“The district has become much more vigilant in notifying parents when unexcused absences occur, and also more consistent in meeting with family members when patterns start to emerge.

“The web-based attendance management system gives district officials near real-time data on classroom activity.”

But I get back to what the state Finance Department investigator told me in 1995 and 1996 about ADA fraud: School leaders consider it a “victimless crime.” Anything that brings more money into their districts is a good thing.

So anytime a district’s attendance increases in an “exceptional” manner, be wary.

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