COLUMBUS — Eight Toledo Public School buildings were flagged today by the first phase of a statewide audit examining the practice of “scrubbing’’ students with attendance issues from data sent to the state that had the effect of improving the schools’ own report cards.
The draft report, however, does not identify specific issues with those Toledo schools. State Auditor David Yost said those schools were included on the list because of their “candor’’ in admitting that they had engaged in scrubbing practices after a problem was first identified in Columbus schools.
The investigation into those schools will continue, Mr. Yost said, as will an examination of additional schools across the state.
The TPS schools identified with problems included the Scott, Rogers, and Start high schools; Brynedale Middle School; and Samuel M. Jones at Gunckel Park, Leverette, East Broadway, and McTigue elementary schools. In all, 871 students had been unenrolled.
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“Based on interviews and their very candid discussions with us, it is clear that they had some of the same practices in terms of lack of documentation, withdrawing students without a determination of truancy, and using Code 71 (truancy/non-attendance), and therefore being improperly withdrawn,’’ Mr. Yost said.
His audit, costing $284,150 to date, shies away from assigning intent on the part of administrators statewide who removed students from data because of attendance issues, sometimes after having received data back from the state letting them know how removal of those students would affect the outcome of their own report cards.
He stressed that this did not appear to be a “teacher problem.’’
Mr. Yost shied away from assigning any intent that would be necessary if he were to refer any individual for potential criminal prosecution, which is within his power. His initial audit of 100 school buildings across the state does make a referral to the Department of Education to re-examine the report cards of some districts.
“We did not answer the question why,’’ Mr. Yost said. “I submit to you that that’s an answerable question as a generality. There’s going to be school districts that perhaps have multiple motivations. Motivations belong to individuals, generally not to organizations.
“There may have been persons in some districts that had a plan to deliberately affect the outcome,’’ he said. “There may be other motivations or explanations that are entirely benign….I caution you that our report should not be construed to point the finger at anyone to establish wrongdoing because wrongdoing goes to intent.’’
The first draft of Mr. Yost’s audit showed extensive indication of “scrubbing’’ in just five school districts out of 47 in which individual buildings were looked at — Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, Marion, and Campbell near Youngstown. In the case of Cleveland, he said the district was “unauditable’’ because of its lack of documentation, a violation of at least state education policy.
By withdrawing and then re-enrolling students who were chronically truant, Toledo administrators removed them from numbers reported to the state that could have dragged down the district’s test scores and attendance rates on its school report cards.
The district has argued that they sought guidance from the Department of Education four years ago and was not told that the maneuver was forbidden.
According to Toledo Public Schools, it withdrew students who were absent five consecutive days and 20 days total without excuse. Only students considered to be continuously enrolled were included in the data reported to the state.
The audit noted that Toledo had been using the “5/20’’ rule since 2001, but dropped it with an administration change that took place in 2005. When school report card grades dipped, it was reinstated. But instead of withdrawing students with attendance problems during the course of the school year, it waited under after it received its first report from the Department of Education containing the district’s preliminary grades to remove them.
“Toledo (City School District) informed (the Auditor of State) that they removed all students that met the 5/20 criteria, regardless of assessment test score results for the affected students,’’ the audit reads. “However, (Auditor of State) is still investigating these claims and will report its results later.’’
TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko said he voluntarily stopped the district's withdrawal policy in June after he read reports of similar practices in Columbus and when he learned TPS' policy may have been improper. He revealed the withdrawal practice to the Blade, and subsequently notified the Auditor's office. In a press conference today, Mr. Pecko said the district's decision to voluntarily report its own practices was part of a TPS effort to be transparent about its operations.
"TPS is engaged in several initiatives that are focused on improving educational opportunities for our students, including being as transparent as we can possibly be with the community," he said. "Our prompt action on this matter is an example of that commitment."
TPS officials have repeatedly said its practices were test score neutral, meaning that the district withdrew truant students regardless of whether they tested poorly or well. Internal data, TPS officials note, shows the district's overall composite test results for the 2010-2011 school year were left unchanged, despite the withdrawal of about five percent of all tested students.
Withdrawals happened at the school level in TPS since 2006, not at the district level; Mr. Pecko admitted that the district's policy created an environment that could have allowed schools to cherry pick the scores of students who performed poorly, but said he's found no evidence that happened.
Mr. Yost said there had been some problems in getting to examine some of Toledo’s documents.
“All of the undermined schools have some sort of a unique local problem,’’ he said. “Sometimes they couldn’t find the files. Sometimes files were following the children and were in multiple buildings. A couple of places we had key personnel that were out for an extended period of time…
“I would like to add that almost without exception across Ohio, even in the five school districts that are mentioned as having evidence of scrubbing, we had a reasonable degree of cooperation,’’ Mr. Yost said.
The audit cleared 21 of the 100 school buildings examined statewide of any attendance issues. Another 28 districts were examined as part of routine audits already under way, and 19 of those were cleared. The other nine had some reporting errors but no indication that they were anything more than errors.
Mr. Yost said some of the schools selected as part of the first review were picked because they have tax levies on the ballot on Nov. 6, and he wanted to remove any unwarranted clouds before then. He expects to release the second phase of his audit on Oct. 23 and hopes to release the final audit sometime around the first of the year.
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