Although the new school year is just starting, the first "incomplete" already has been taken. The Ohio Department of Education is delaying release of the annual report cards it gives public school districts and individual schools across Ohio while the state auditor investigates accounts of data manipulation by several systems, including Toledo Public Schools.
It's proper that the state not circulate the report cards until it determines whether tainted numbers have artificially inflated some districts' and schools' grades. More important, the Education Department must develop clear and consistent rules for how local districts account to the state for chronically absent students, both their attendance records and their scores on standardized tests.
TPS, along with Columbus City Schools and a district in suburban Cincinnati, have acknowledged removing the test scores of habitual truants from data they provided the state to compile the report cards, declaring those students to have withdrawn. To do otherwise, district officials suggest, could have provided a distorted picture of how they are educating students who attend class regularly.
But there may be darker motives: An investigation in Columbus reportedly includes a review of whether some school officials cooked the books to qualify for bonuses tied to academic improvement.
In previous years, TPS re-enrolled hundreds of truant students after they were taken off attendance rolls and their test scores removed. Toledo Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko properly suspended the data-scrubbing last month, although he insists there is no indication of deliberate wrongdoing or illegal activity by any district employee.
During the 2010-11 school year, the deletions did not appear to affect the district's overall grade on its state report card. Effects may have been more pronounced at individual TPS schools.
It strains credulity to think that this practice is limited to just three districts. This month, State Auditor Dave Yost asked all Ohio school systems to report similar behavior voluntarily. Mr. Yost promised to look favorably on districts such as TPS that stepped forward to describe potentially questionable conduct.
State education officials insist they have given clear guidance to local districts on reporting practices for truant students; leaders of the affected districts disagree vigorously. An outside review commissioned by TPS and conducted by Toledo attorney Fritz Byers concludes that the district told the state about the data-scrubbing at least four years ago, but was not instructed to end the practice. District officials believed they were following state policy, he adds.
Mr. Byers also says the Education Department did not offer guidance about data reporting; a department spokesman accuses TPS of "trying to pass the buck." Such discord suggests a clear need for state and local officials to work together to develop data rules on test scores and attendance that remove any ambiguity.
Ohio taxpayers and parents must be confident that the report cards issued by the state are accurate and reliable measures of how local districts and schools are performing. They also must be confident that if any school officials, in local districts or state government, engaged in or enabled fraudulent conduct, they will be identified and suitably punished.
Most of all, they must see state education officials and local districts acting aggressively and in concert to ensure that any improper manipulation of student data ends immediately.