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Published: Tuesday, 7/24/2012

Uncooking the books

The revelation that Toledo Public Schools has been deleting the test scores of habitually truant students from data it gives the state to prepare the district's annual report card raises troubling, and thus far unanswered, questions: Did the district's manipulation of attendance data break the law? How many students have been covered by this practice? How long has it been in effect?

Has the practice artificially inflated grades on past report cards for the district and individual schools? How prevalent is this policy in other districts across Ohio? These questions demand prompt and full responses.

Still, Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko deserves credit for voluntarily disclosing the changes to TPS attendance records, for arranging an outside investigation of the practice, and for ending the practice in the meantime. He has set an example of public transparency and candor, if belated, that other local officials should emulate.

Mr. Pecko told The Blade's editorial board late last week that TPS had followed a policy of removing the test scores of chronic truants from overall district data at the end of the school year, taking these students off attendance rolls, and then immediately re-enrolling them. He said it isn't clear how many students this policy affected, but conceded it could have been a "couple hundred" a year.

The superintendent, who took over at TPS in August, 2010, said he did not learn of the practice until last month. He said he asked school officials about the Toledo system's procedures in light of recent allegations that Columbus City Schools administrators had changed student attendance records to improve that district's report card. He then suspended the truancy practice, "because I am not comfortable" with it, but insisted it was not aimed at deliberate deception.

Keith Wilkowski, a lawyer for TPS, said the Toledo policy may go back at least to the administration of former Superintendent Eugene Sanders. Similar questions about scrubbing of attendance data were raised two years ago in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, when Mr. Sanders was schools chief there.

Mr. Wilkowski said the Ohio Department of Education offers inadequate guidance about how districts should report test scores of habitual truants. The department claims state law is appropriately clear on attendance procedures.

But state education officials need to remove any ambiguity in the matter, given their stated intention to make the report cards the state issues more meaningful and worthy of public confidence.

This disclosure comes at an especially inopportune time for TPS. District leaders seek to persuade skeptical Toledo voters to approve a big property tax increase in November. TPS also wants to take over the federal contract to run the local Head Start program.

Mr. Pecko said he does not believe that including truants' test scores in TPS data for the past school year will cost the district its current grade of "continuous improvement" on its new report card, due out next month. If the district's disclosures are full, his willingness to subject TPS to independent scrutiny can add to, rather than detract from, its credibility.



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