A state investigation into claims that Princeton High School distorted attendance records could not conclusively determine whether all 2009 through 2012 Princeton High School graduates met local attendance requirements, as mandated by state law, because of an absence of documentary evidence, according to a newly released report.
The state reviewed a sampling of student transcripts and other documentation and found that a number of the transcripts Princeton High School originally provided for review were inaccurate. Some of the attendance records the high school provided for review revealed a significant number of graduates who had 18 or more absences in classes.
“Princeton High School failed to provide documentary evidence to substantiate that attendance waivers had been granted to each of the graduates with excessive absences, and that each such waiver had been granted,” reads the report from the State Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance.
“The failure to maintain records of attendance waivers is inconsistent with the provisions of stat law, ” reads the report, which calls on the the district to develop a corrective action plan indicating the measures that will be taken to remedy the documentation deficiencies and ensure compliance with state statutes.
The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education posted a statement about the report on the district website yesterday, agreeing with the report’s recommendation but challenging some of the language in the report.
“The recommendation that the Princeton Public Schools design a standardized form to be used in all cases of attendance appeals is one which the district recognizes as a basic need and will fully comply with beginning this spring,” the statement reads.
School officials say the direct point of concern in 2008-09 records stems from the conversion of the district’s student records software from SASI to PowerSchool on July 1, 2009.
“While the district agrees with the recommendation, it takes great exception to the omissions, misleading language and incomplete account in the report,” reads the board statement. “Most of all, it must be clearly and firmly stated that never once were any student records altered in any way. PHS pupils are known well by their teachers, their counselors, their nurses and their administrators. Every credit, every grade and every attendance pattern were specifically documented and addressed by our staff.”
The investigation was triggered by an anonymous complaint that during the 2008-09 school year, staff members at the high school failed to enter detrimental attendance and grade data into the school’s data management system, allowing students who were ineligible for commencement to graduate.
In response to the complaint, state investigators reviewed documentation for students who graduated between 2009 and 2012. Students who are absent 18 times or more for a full-year course or who are absent nine times or more for a semester course are normally denied credit for the course. But students can appeal denials of credit. Investigators sampled 60 students, 15 from each of the four graduating classes, who were in conflict with the policy. More documentation was requested for 75 students. For some graduates, minimum documentation was produced in January. For others, no file was produced. In some cases graduates received credit when they should not have, and some graduates substantially exceeded the number of allowable absences but were not subject to a loss of credit.
In February investigators met with officials and reviewed documentation again. “Most of the transcripts now also contained handwritten notes indicating that additional credits had been earned by the graduate, but had been erroneously excluded from the transcript,” read the state report.
“Several other transcripts contained no handwritten notes, but were materially different from the transcripts originally provided to the investigator,” reads the report. “The investigator noted more than once instance in which the transcript originally provided for a student contained an indication the the graduate had lost credit in a specify course due to excessive absences, but the transcript produced that day indicated the graduate had earned credit for the courses.”
Asked about inconsistencies between transcripts, officials said the school principal had final authority over appeals and had granted appeals in each of the cases, having determined that an attendance waiver was justified by medical or life conditions. Life conditions includes transportation difficulties, homelessness, coming from a lower income family, being raised by single parent, being a teen parent, recent immigration, or participation in out-of-school activities.
School officials could not produce any documentation regarding the appeals or the ultimate granting of attendance waivers, according to the report. They said the transcript itself was the evidence of the waiver. When a school official was asked about high levels of absence without the loss of credit, the question was deflected by pointing out that the students were high achievers. Pressed regarding the appearance of the selective application of policy, students’ known medical or life conditions were cited as reasons for the waivers.
“In light of the handwritten notes, verbal explanations and discrepancies among various incarnations of the unofficial transcripts, the investigator requested that PHS provide official certified transcripts for each of the graduates discussed at the February meeting,” reads the report.”Upon review of the official certified transcripts, the investigator found that the additional credits referenced in the hand-written notes and the verbal explanations had been incorporated.”
School officials say that in the course of the investigation, more than 1,350 students’ records were reviewed and approximately 130 were scrutinized in order to determine that pupils met attendance requirements for graduation.
“In the final analysis, OFAC sought more documentation of an attendance appeals process than could be presented for fewer than a dozen students in the 2009 graduating class,” reads the board statement. “However, and most importantly, every graduate’s attendance record, course credits and state testing requirement were fully documented.”
School officials attribute the lack of documentation of attendance appeals for 12 students to the 2009 conversion to the new software system for attendance records: “We are completely confident that, notwithstanding the lack of perfect documentation, the procedures in those limited cases were appropriate and fair, and that the correct decision was made in each individual case, based on a consideration of all the circumstances and in a manner consistent with our policies.”