D.C. has failed to adequately collect detailed student education data, audit report finds

The city swiftly rebutted the report, calling many of the claims “unfounded” and arguing that it fails to note the “monumental” amount of progress the city has made in collecting data over the past five years. The Office of the State Superintendent said it has abided by all federal grant rules to build out the system and provided a 2020 letter from the U.S. Education Department saying that the city properly used its 2007 and 2012 federal grant money to build these data systems and that the agency has “evidence of successful completion of the projects.”

“We have access to longitudinal, student-level data from across the education continuum, from birth to adulthood, and can draw linkages across this continuum to analyze the relationship between inputs and outcomes,” Shana Young, interim state superintendent of education, wrote in a response to the report. “Much of that progress has been made over the past five years.”

The Education Department provided grants to states across the country to build a Statewide Longitudinal Data System, which is intended to collect huge amounts of data over a student’s education career, so schools can have all the information they need to help an individual student and so states can use the data to influence policy.

The audit report notes that other states have built robust websites making this longitudinal data accessible.

This information is particularly critical in a highly transient city like D.C., where students frequently switch between traditional public and charter schools. When a student transfers, a school should be able to easily access records and see what the student studied at a previous school.

And the city should be able to look at data and understand how factors in elementary schools could affect students’ graduation and job prospects, as well as why students are transferring schools and how that shapes their long-term academic outcomes.

While some of this data exists, the city falls short of either collecting or sharing ample data to illustrate a complete and useful picture, according to the report.

The audit notes, for example, that about 10 percent of public school students have changed schools at a year other than sixth or ninth grade. More than 4 percent of students transfer schools midyear, with 65 percent of these more than 3,000 students transferring after the Oct. 1 date when schools are paid for students on their rosters. 

According to the auditor, most students who transfer enroll in a school that is in a lower-income area than the one they previously attended. 

The auditor used city-collected data to conduct the analysis, but she argues that the city has either not published this data or has not provided an analysis that is useful to schools and residents.    

Other data at question in the report covers enrollment, attendance and discipline.  

The auditor said that while enrollment data has improved in recent years, the city’s celebration of enrollment growth could be misleading because many of these gains come from the adult education sector. The auditor recommends  that the city report this number separately so that the public can better assess the data. 

The report also charges that the superintendent has given the D.C. Public Charter School Board authority to collect some data for the city’s 66 charter networks, and that the charter data is not always of the same quality as the traditional public school system’s information. For example, charter schools did not report the number of in-school suspensions that occur on their campuses. 

The D.C. Council has passed legislation on school discipline in recent years, and education leaders have said the collection of this data improves each year.

The audit follows 2018 council legislation that created the D.C. Education Research Advisory Board to conduct independent, long-term research on the city’s education sector. Part of the legislation also called for an audit of the city’s data and data management.

City leaders said they cooperated with the two-year process to complete the audit but believe the report went beyond the scope of the legislation, which they said was to take inventory of the current education data to help guide the new research partnership.

“Despite the effort, time, and collaboration afforded by the District’s education agencies, we regret this audit fell short of its charge,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn wrote in his response to the report.

The D.C. Council is hosting a hearing on the report on Friday.

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