Toledo Public Schools and several other Ohio districts fiddled with their attendance figures for several years. But how much can they be blamed, when state education officials knew what they were doing and did not object?
Last year, State Auditor Dave Yost investigated allegations of data scrubbing. He concluded that nine districts, including TPS and Columbus City Schools, improperly reported attendance data. TPS and the other districts bent attendance statistics so they could exclude thousands of test scores of chronically truant students and improve their districts’ performance on state report cards.
The Ohio Department of Education has threatened punishment, which could include lowering past report card scores, reducing state aid, or suspending or revoking the professional licenses of educators who took part in the scrubbing.
But is that fair?
In 2008, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the city’s school district had un-enrolled students who had stopped coming to class or transferred to other schools. Former TPS superintendent Eugene Sanders was head of the Cleveland district at the time.
More recently, the Columbus Dispatch uncovered a similar pattern in that city’s public schools. In both districts, some students’ scores were dropped from state tests. In both districts, scores improved on the state report card.
That was not the first time that the accuracy of data reported by school districts came under scrutiny. Three years before the revelations about Cleveland and Columbus schools, state education officials put together an internal panel to address data-reporting issues statewide. But the Education Department apparently lacked authority to punish schools that cooked their attendance books.
In the 2008 incident, according to documents recently obtained by The Blade, state education officials who tried to replicate the data in the Plain Dealer report found more scrubbed students than the newspaper suggested. Yet no action was taken against Cleveland or Columbus schools, even though the General Assembly had given the education department power to sanction districts a year earlier.
In 2009, according to a spokesman, the education department started to flag districts with high numbers of students whose test scores counted only for state totals, and to alert districts when they were flagged. So it seems that state officials knew as much as five years ago that specific schools were manipulating attendance data. And eight years ago, state officials were concerned about the integrity of data reported by school districts.
That TPS did what other schools were doing, and may have believed that education department officials also were aware of the practice, does not absolve local school officials of their duty to act ethically. But it does mitigate the offense.
Outgoing TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko apparently did not know about the district’s data scrubbing, stopped the practice when he found out last summer, and reported that activity to state officials. This is a mark in his, and the school district’s, favor.
The scope of activity in Toledo appears narrower than in Columbus, where there are accusations of administrators getting bonuses based on scrubbed data. The Columbus district also has been rocked by reports of wholesale grade changes to boost graduation rates.
Meting out punishment will not obscure the complicity, tacit or explicit, of state education officials in these abuses.
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