COLUMBUS — Eight Toledo Public Schools improperly "scrubbed" truant students from attendance rolls, according to a preliminary report of a statewide audit into the practice, though the state auditor said the intent behind the practice is still unclear.
State Auditor David Yost on Thursday released a draft report into his investigation of attendance-data reporting practices, an investigation that focused on 100 schools that showed high numbers of students removed for truancy.
Related content: Report on Student Attendance Data and Accountability System
Though the report flags the TPS schools, it does not identify specific issues at those schools, only noting that their attendance-reporting practices were improper. Mr. 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, he 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, and Byrnedale, Samuel M. Jones at Gunckel Park, Leverette, East Broadway, and McTigue elementary schools. All flagged TPS elementary schools were middle schools during the 2010-2011 school year, the year the auditor's office used for its investigation. In all, 871 students had been withdrawn and then re-enrolled.
“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students without a determination of truancy, and using Code 71 [truancy/nonattendance], and therefore being improperly withdrawn,’’ Mr.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 does not assign any intent, a designation necessary to refer an 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.
“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 its practices were a good-faith effort to handle truant students in a complicated reporting system and said it sought guidance from the Department of Education four years ago with little response.
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, the rule was reinstated. But instead of withdrawing students with attendance problems during the course of the school year, it waited until 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 might have been improper. He revealed the withdrawal practice to The Blade, and subsequently notified the Auditor's office. In a news conference on Thursday, 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."
Students can be legitimately withdrawn for truancy in Ohio, but the report states that students and parents are afforded due process to challenge the truancy designation. In order for a student to be considered truant, and thus withdrawn, there must be a court adjudication, according to the report.
Many of the truant TPS students could have been legitimately withdrawn if the district had followed that process, so the difference on state report cards might have been negligible. Mr. Pecko said many of the withdrawn students had been referred to juvenile court for truancy, though not necessarily adjudicated.
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, show the district's overall composite test results for the 2010-2011 school year were left unchanged, despite the withdrawal of about 5 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. Pecko also questioned the impact to due process for students under the TPS policy, because they were only technically withdrawn on paper and for seconds at a time. A state auditor's spokesman said those kinds of questions would be examined during the final audit.
Mr. Yost said there had been some problems in examining some of Toledo’s documents, though he noted that nearly every school in the state, including Toledo, cooperated with the investigation.
The Ohio Department of Education delayed the initial release of school report cards because of the attendance investigation. The department ultimately released partial report cards last week. A full release will remain delayed until pending action by the Ohio Board of Education, department spokesman John Charlton said.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.