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Published: Saturday, 7/21/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Toledo Public Schools records adjusted to lift state test scores

System chief orders review of practice

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko, left, and Toledo Board of Education President Lisa Sobecki. TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko, left, and Toledo Board of Education President Lisa Sobecki.
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Toledo Public Schools has manipulated some students' attendance data to improve state report-card scores, the district's superintendent told The Blade on Friday.

Under the practice, schools retroactively withdraw and re-enroll chronically absent students to erase their poor attendance records.

Ohio school districts apparently are allowed to throw out test scores of students who are not continuously enrolled from October through the testing dates in March and May. That would improve a school's overall performance rating because the withdrawn students' test scores would no longer count.

TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko said he ordered a review of the district's procedures after news reports last month that Columbus City Schools had "scrubbed" habitually truant students' test scores.

School officials and a lawyer hired to independently investigate the matter have asked state education officials for an opinion on whether the Toledo schools violated state rules.

Mr. Pecko, who disclosed the information during a meeting with The Blade's editorial board Friday, said the same practice was in use at Toledo Public Schools, although he did not know for how long nor how many students it affected. He said it would not be done this year and he does not expect it to lower TPS' "continuous improvement" ranking with the Ohio Department of Education.

"There is a piece of what we do that we are hearing is in contention in Columbus, and that is the piece that we focused on and we are not doing anymore," Mr. Pecko said. "Whether or not it is something that will, in the end, be endorsed by the people in Columbus, we just don't know. Absent that endorsement, I just don't feel comfortable to continue to do it, so we have stopped it so this particular report card is going to be a clean report card."

Mr. Pecko said the review discovered that students who fall within the statutory definition of "habitual truancy" are not included in the scores tabulations on building and district annual report cards.

"In particular, I discovered that at end of the year, the district had a practice of retroactively removing from the tabulation students who met that definition and then immediately re-enrolling them," he said.

Mr. Pecko said he was unsure if the previous two superintendents -- Eugene Sanders and John Foley -- knew about or endorsed the practice.

Keith Wilkowski, a TPS lawyer, said the Ohio Department of Education's Education Management Information System handbook seems to allow "scrubbing," but it is unclear.

"It appears this has been out there for a number of years," Mr. Wilkowski said.

"I was left with really just scratching my head trying to figure out how one is supposed to follow the EMIS manual," he said. "Overall the sense that one gets is that the state wants you to report the scores of students who have been in your system, but you are to be evaluated on the students you have had the opportunity to teach."

Mr. Wilkowski said there is a provision directing schools not to count students who have been withdrawn for non-attendance or chronic truancy. The statutory definition for chronic truancy is five or more days, he said.

"We concluded this was just very unclear and has been going on for some time, and people have been trying in good faith to apply the concept," Mr. Wilkowski said.

Toledo Board of Education President Lisa Sobecki said she was surprised to learn that "scrubbing" was occurring.

"I know that once it was brought to the attention of the superintendent and the board, it stopped immediately," Ms. Sobecki said. "It looks to me there are questions at the state level of how they interpret that law, and I think that it might be a state-level problem."

In August, 2004, under Superintendent Sanders, when Toledo Public Schools jumped out of Academic Emergency and landed a Continuous Improvement state rating -- the equivalent of going from an F to a C -- some wondered if the district had used measures such as truant "scrubbing."

The Cleveland school district also came under scrutiny for "scrubbing" students in 2008, two years after Mr. Sanders took over as that school system's chief executive.

Cleveland dropped and re-enrolled 1,999 students during the 2006-07 school year and 2,104 in 2007-08 year, after having done that with just 1,137 students in 2005-06, the school year before Mr. Sanders left Toledo to take the reins there.

Mr. Sanders could not be reached for comment. He announced his retirement in late 2010, just months after successfully pressing for a three-year contract extension through 2014.

A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education also did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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