Toledo Public Schools was flagged last week in a report by the state auditor for questionable attendance-reporting practices. TPS was not the lone offender in Ohio — and did report itself — but that does not end the matter.
Ohio Auditor David Yost declined to say whether TPS or the Columbus, Cleveland, Campbell, or Marion school systems deliberately removed chronically truant students from their rolls to raise scores on standardized tests. But if they were removed improperly, that may have been the effect, whatever the intent.
The investigation is not complete, so the list of schools that manipulated attendance data could grow. But in the initial review of 100 schools in 47 districts, more than a third had serious problems.
In Toledo, 871 students at eight schools were removed, then re-enrolled. It could be worse: In Cleveland, nearly 20,000 students — more than one in three — were removed from test results in 2010-2011. In Columbus, whether school officials manipulated attendance numbers to qualify for bonuses is under review.
Auditors said Cleveland schools lacked documentation on withdrawals and transfers, making it impossible to tell whether they were legitimate. And students coded as truants and removed from the rolls were not referred to juvenile court, as required.
TPS has removed students with five consecutive absences and 20 total absences since 2001. It dropped the practice several years ago, but reinstated it when the district's grade went down on the state report card. Jerome Pecko, the current schools superintendent, ended the practice last June.
Instead of removing students throughout the year, TPS officials previously waited until after they received the district's preliminary test results. School officials say all students who met the absence criteria were removed, not just those with low test scores. The auditor's office is investigating that claim.
Since 2006, individual TPS schools rather than district officials were in charge of withdrawing students. That could have made it easier for schools to affect their state scores, although there's no indication they did so.
The auditor's report comes at a bad time for Toledo, Cleveland, and other school districts. It heightens local uncertainty about how well schools are educating students, just as many districts are about to ask voters for more money.
In TPS' defense, district officials told the state Education Department at least four years ago that they were scrubbing enrollment data. When they weren't told to stop, they concluded that the practice was legal. And when questions arose about data-scrubbing in Columbus schools, TPS reported what it had been doing to state officials.
State education officials aren't off the hook. The auditor's report says the department relies too heavily on self-reporting by districts. The state must provide clear rules and specific guidance, and back them up with independent oversight to ensure compliance.
Still, TPS administrators unnecessarily created at least the appearance of impropriety. Instead of taking the state's non-answer as a yes, district officials should have followed their instincts, which told them the withdrawals were questionable at best. That's what they would have told students to do.