Grade changing

Did Memphis school leaders just get a pass in the $159,000 grade-tampering probe?

After evidence surfaced of improper grade changing at a Memphis school, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson vowed that the district would put policies in place to prevent such “criminal” actions from happening again, and said that those who violated existing policies would be fired.

But then Dixon Hughes Goodman, the accounting firm hired to dig deeper into possible grade tampering elsewhere in the district, gave up this week — determining that the grade-change forms needed to prove misconduct were missing in just about every case. (All but 15 of the expected 668 grade change forms were missing at nine schools examined in the probe.)

The stunning decision to halt the investigation is now prompting questions about whether anyone will be held accountable, and if the investigation, which has cost the district some $159,000, was reliable to begin with.

When Shelby County Schools board members were briefed on the situation earlier this week, they did not challenge the findings or insist on further review. They stressed that they planned to focus on implementing measures to keep it from happening again. Shante Avant, the school board’s chairwoman, declined to comment.

An investigation by the state comptroller’s office into grade changing in the district is still underway, according to the county’s district attorney office, who handed off the investigation.


From the archives: Hopson says more firings possible as investigators dig deeper into Memphis grade changing


“It’s extremely disappointing [that] the only response is, ‘We want to put this behind us.’” said Ronnie Mackin, the former principal whose whistleblowing prompted the Memphis investigation. “Of course you do. You want to move on and not have any oversight or accountability whatsoever.”

Michael Pleasants, a teacher who was interviewed by another set of investigators looking into grade changes at Hamilton High School, said that while he’s glad that Shelby County Schools is putting in place a more rigorous grade-changing procedure, “the idea that the people who could get fired over this didn’t keep up with a form shows that there was no wrongdoing is laughable.”

Chris Caldwell, a former school board member who was its chair when the investigation began, said without knowing which grade changes were legitimate, it’s hard to determine if the district’s academic gains — especially with graduation rates — are real or inflated.

“If the community loses confidence in the district and the academic data the district is providing them, that’s serious,” Caldwell told Chalkbeat.

New preventative measures by Shelby County Schools
    • Conducted training of all school counselors, records secretaries and additional school staff on the process, signatures required and forms requested.
    • Initiated monthly reviews of all schools to check for changes to transcripts and ensure proper documentation from school staff.
    • Requiring transcript changes be made via forms that are signed and documented to verify grade changes.
    • Invested in additional software for data analytics and additional personnel to provide oversight across the District.
    • Hired four District-level School Compliance Advisors to provide the necessary oversight and manage the established grade changing process.
    • Implemented a grade verification process form, which allows teachers and principals to verify all grades changes that occur every nine weeks.

Source: Shelby County Schools

District policy requires school staff to fill out a paper form any time a grade on a student’s transcript is changed. The form and supporting documents justifying the revision are supposed to be in the student’s file.

Inconsistent use of the forms didn’t stop an accounting firm in 2003 from identifying grade tampering and course credits in 16 schools in Washington, D.C. Authorities there compared paper and electronic grade records, conducted interviews with teachers and administrators, and reviewed district policy.

“If they could not find so many forms, that does not look good,” Erich Martel, the whistleblower in the D.C. case, told Chalkbeat. “What that suggests to me is they were intentionally lost. That’s the inference I would draw.”

A lack of paper grade change forms also didn’t stop another set of investigators from finding fraud at Trezevant High School, the school where the scandal began in 2016.

District officials said the difference with Trezevant was that there were specific allegations against specific people, whereas the accounting firm was broadly fishing for misconduct in the second investigation.

“It’s a different methodology, different investigative techniques that were used,” said Leon Pattman, the district’s chief of internal audit. “We were looking specifically at transcript transactions and then trying to go back and find out who did it, who’s involved, all this other stuff. But when the forms aren’t there to tell us who the principals are, the parties are, that we need to look at, we don’t know who to talk to. We don’t have any of that documentation. Who do you interview?”

Mackin, the former Trezevant High principal who first brought the matter to the district’s attention, said the investigators should have looked at the computerized student management system and not stopped at grade change forms.

“In theory, there’s supposed to be a grade change form, but no one used them,” Mackin told Chalkbeat. “People were going in the computer and doing them themselves.”

In its contract with the district, Dixon Hughes Goodman said it would compare paper and electronic grade books — similar to what was done with Trezevant — that could lead them to discover discrepancies. But the firm never did that. Instead, investigators said grade change forms for transcripts were “the most reliable source of information.”

“We considered suggesting [a] scope change to include extensive interviews and other techniques to examine the grade changes without relying on grade change forms,” the firm said in its letter Wednesday to Shelby County Schools explaining why it wanted to terminate its contract early. “However, this approach would be cost prohibited compared to the original budget for this engagement and is highly unlikely to yield different results.”

District administration did not respond to requests from Chalkbeat to clarify why investigators did not compare paper and electronic grade books as written in the contract. Dixon Hughes Goodman referred all questions to Shelby County Schools.

The accounting firm started gathering grade change forms in March. They found grade change forms were missing because files were destroyed when school counselors or administrators left schools, not all schools were familiar with them or they were sent with the students when they graduated per district policy.

“Of course they don’t have the forms! Of course they don’t!” Mackin said. “If this is not the most blatant obvious coverup of wrongdoing, I don’t know what would define it.”

The grade change form was created under a former district in the area that is now folded into Shelby County Schools. When district leaders were merging differing policies and practices, the grade change form stuck around. But many school staff were unfamiliar with the process, said Joris Ray, an assistant superintendent with the district. (Story continues below)

Even some who were familiar with the forms under the former district thought the policy was abandoned when the districts merged, according to the accounting firm. That includes Shirley Quinn, the records secretary at Trezevant High School who was fired after officials discovered that over a period of three years nearly 1,000 grades changed in her name without documentation.

Quinn told investigators with the Butler Snow law firm, which oversaw the Trezevant probe, that the school had stopped using grade change forms. “They did years ago. But they stopped that,” she said, according to the interview transcript from that investigation. “With different admins[trators] it changed. Teachers don’t bring any documentation.”

Next steps identified by Shelby County Schools
    • Establish a Grading Oversight Task Force including board members, teachers, school leaders and administrators to ensure all new processes and guidelines are implemented with fidelity.
    • Approval, implementation and district-wide training of the new grading policy.
    • Initiate an electronic grade changing process that will allow us to maintain the records, as applicable by law.
    • Increase training for principals, school‐level administrators, and teachers on the new policy and additional process controls.
    • Implement changes to access controls, including limiting the number of SCS employees to have access within Power School to record historical grade changes.
    • Continue to provide oversight from principals, District‐level personnel, the internal audit department, assistant superintendents, and the superintendent.

Source: Shelby County Schools

Quinn, along with football coach Teli White, were the only ones fired at Trezevant High School. Monekea Smith, principal at Hamilton High School, was demoted last year for giving her login credentials to an unauthorized employee who made unjustified changes on report cards.

Ray, the assistant superintendent, said the best thing to do now is to train principals and other personnel so they have no excuse going forward. The district is developing an electronic grade-change form, and staff is now required to keep a copy at the school. Since the investigation was commissioned, Hopson restricted those allowed to change a student’s grade to teachers, a records secretary, and one other designee of the principal.

Ray also stressed principals and other staff will be responsible for safeguarding usernames and passwords to the district’s grading system. In every case of grade fraud identified by the district so far, school staff let other employees use their login credentials or left their computers unattended while logged in.

“We have to train folks before we hold folks to the strict accountability,” Ray told reporters Tuesday after the investigation’s release.

It’s only as of this past spring that a new state law mandated that any changes to a student’s transcript must come with detailed justification. Those who break the law could lose their teaching license and could face criminal charges.

The Tennessee Department of Education still has unanswered questions in the wake of the accounting firm’s probe, according to spokeswoman Sara Gast.

“We are asking for more feedback and context on what the auditor did or did not find and their recommendations for next steps, as well as a copy of their report,” Gast said Thursday. “We also will be requesting more information from Shelby County Schools about their records retention policies.”

Ultimately, stopping short of finding those responsible for past wrongdoing reflects poorly on the district, Mackin said.

“There’s a whole bunch of really awesome educators in Shelby County Schools, but there are people who knew cheating was going on,” he said. “It’s a continued cycle of failing our kids. … [T]here’s a small group of adults who knew about it, lied about it, and perpetuated it.”

Yeshiva probe

As Yeshiva probe heats up, state issues guidance for reviewing nonpublic schools

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
A school bus sits outside an all girls Jewish school in Williamsburg.

The state education department released long-awaited guidance Tuesday on the process that local authorities must follow to determine whether nonpublic and religious schools, including yeshivas, are meeting standards equivalent to those governing New York’s public schools.

The guidance arrives in New York City on the heels of a long-running probe into whether city yeshivas are providing an adequate secular education. The state direction also comes after the recent firing of former city investigator Mark Peters, whose office was scrutinizing City Hall’s involvement in the yeshiva investigation.

Will Mantell, spokesman for the city education department, said its officials will “work aggressively to implement” the state’s instructions.

Under the guidelines, local school districts must perform a review of each religious and independent school within their boundaries. But Tuesday’s guidance also folds in an amendment lawmakers passed this spring that largely applies to yeshivas: after an initial review by the local school district, the state education commissioner makes the final determination over schools that are nonprofit corporations, have a bilingual program, and operate during a certain time frame.

The new guidance comes after a three-year city Department of Education probe that found troubling lapses in secular education at the city’s yeshivas and asked for direction from the state, which recently granted oversight of the schools to the state education commissioner. Controversy heated up again last week as city education officials admitted they still haven’t visited many of the schools, whose students often come from the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, which is seen as a powerful voting bloc.

And last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio fired Peters, who quickly warned that de Blasio’s decision could reflect an effort to quash his office’s yeshiva probe. At a press conference on Monday, de Blasio denied that City Hall tried to interfere in any of Peters’ investigations.

The guidance, which stresses that oversight of nonpublic schools be “a collaborative effort,” sets out the procedure the city should follow and provides for a new round of training for investigators and a timeline of three years, up to December 2021, that districts can have to complete their reviews. Thereafter, districts will revisit the reviews every five years and maintain an open dialogue with nonpublic school leaders.

A preliminary city probe found that in many yeshivas instruction in English and math lasted only 90 minutes, didn’t take place every day, and was sometimes voluntary. Lessons in math didn’t go beyond basic division and fractions, science instruction was almost nonexistent, and teaching often occurred in languages other than English.

Naftuli Moster, the founder and executive director of Young Advocates For Fair Education, or YAFFED, an advocacy group that has pushed for more oversight of religious schools, thinks this timeline could stymie needed change. He notes that the city’s earlier review “may now have to be revisited in light of the new guidelines, dragging this investigation on for even longer while students in ultra-Orthodox schools continue to be deprived of a substantially equivalent education,” he said.We don’t believe that the yeshivas that have been stonewalling should be rewarded with even more time.”

In addition to core coursework, schools must abide by other requirements, including conducting “fire and emergency drills” and meeting “immunization requirements for their grades.” (A few Orthodox Jewish communities, which sometimes have low vaccination rates, have recently suffered outbreaks of measles in New York and New Jersey.)

New York City officials have reviewed many yeshivas already, and Elia said the city “should take the guidance that we have provided” and apply it to what they’ve found.

“The State has given the DOE clear authority to visit and evaluate all non-public schools, and we immediately requested the earliest possible staff training on the new guidance and will begin visits, evaluations, and recommendations and findings of substantial equivalency as soon as we’ve completed the training,” Mantell said.

The department will give priority to the “the six schools that have denied us access” and move “forward with the 24 schools that are part of our inquiry, which may include additional visits or gathering additional documents,” he said.

The state’s actions come as the number of students attending Jewish day schools and yeshivas in grades K-12 is growing rapidly, reaching a record 110,000, nearly rivaling the size of the city’s charter sector, which serves roughly 114,000 students. (Approximately 148,000 students attend parochial or independent day schools in the city.)

When asked about certain yeshivas denying the city access, Elia said, “If someone does not allow anyone in from the local school district to review and look at what’s happening there, there obviously would be consequences.”

The first remedy would be compelling schools to comply. But continued non-compliance could mean a loss of funding for certain services, like textbook and transportation, which Elia said is a rare occurrence. Parents at the schools would be notified, usually within six weeks to two months, that their children must be transferred to an appropriate school. If those students stay at the school past the established deadline, they could be marked as truant.

Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

Fixing Special Education

How will Chicago repair the harm from special-education neglect?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Laurel Henson, at the podium, spoke at a press conference in Chicago on Nov. 12, 2018, about her 2-year struggle to get a school nurse on staff to help her son, who suffers from seizures.

Illinois may be forcing Chicago Public Schools to repair its broken special education program, but the ambitious effort still begs a critical question: What happens to hundreds of Chicago children who were harmed by the district refusing them services that would  help them learn?

Neither the state nor the school district is saying yet, even as advocates for students in special education have pressed for answers.

Those children include an unnamed third-grader trapped by a tactic the district apparently used to avoid offering services required by federal law.

The child can’t read the word cat or dog, health-legal advocate Barbara Cohen said, but his teacher didn’t believe in giving low grades. So the third grader received a B in English. Then, she told the State Board of Education on Friday, when the child’s mother sought an evaluation for special education services, school officials denied the request based on his having a good grade.

Laura Boedeker, the state’s monitor overseeing special-education reforms, acknowledged that schools vary in understanding the laws and best practices. Her job, she said, “is to have those discussions and explain what good practices look like.”

That’s not likely to satisfy parents and advocates pushing for quicker action that would help families like the third-grader’s. On Friday, they pressed authorities like Boedeker, who previously served as the district’s in-house attorney.

But with a staff of just three, including herself, it’s not clear how fast Boedeker can move. In four-and-a-half months on the job, she’s only visited 10 of the district’s 600-plus schools.

“Do you have enough boots on the ground, enough help to do this work at the rate you need to do it?” asked Illinois State Board of Education member Susie Morrison.

“We could have an army and not have enough boots on the ground,” said Stephanie Jones, the board’s general counsel. “What we need more than anything is eyes and ears that tell us what is going on so we can take action. Unless we can put an ISBE employee in every school, which is unrealistic, we need parents and teachers and staff members to tell us what is going on.”

Recognizing the lag in responding to parents, the state board is weighing whether to extend the one-year deadline for filing complaints about denied or improper services.

It’s possible, Jones said, that “we can wave this until we have a system of corrective action in place.”

Neither the state nor district have answered questions like: How many students could be eligible? When exactly will the system go into effect? And what roles should advocates and schools play?

Boedeker said that federal officials have insisted that teams who put together students’ individualized education programs be involved in the remedy, because “they’re the ones on the front lines with these students.” 

But lawyer Matt Cohen said he and other advocates want a process that involves more people than the IEP team.

A child who, for example, went without a one-on-one aide for many months or who didn’t get placed in therapeutic day school when needed “might have had a profound loss,” Cohen said.

How the district will compensate that family is the question.  

“They may need more than just a few hours of tutoring to make up for that, they may need months and months of additional services and a specialized process to help them catch up,” Cohen said. “We’re encouraging families whose kids were hurt to bring their complaints to the state, and to seek action to get their individual child’s needs met.”

Jones said that board officials and the school district, federal government and special education advocates are discussing school guidelines for identifying students harmed, notifying their families, assessing damages and offering remedies.

About half a year has passed since a state probe found the school district violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services — like aides, therapy, outside placement and busing — to students in what the district calls its Diverse Learners Program.

The state board’s Jones and Boedeker tried to placate critics by preaching patience.

“From the outside looking in it looks really slow,” Jones said, “but I think we’ve accomplished a great deal in the time we have had.”

Patience doesn’t sit well with parents desperately worried about their children.

Laurel Henson, whose son suffers from seizures, said she’s been pushing to get a nurse on staff at Smyser Elementary for two years, but has encountered “delays and excuses.” On Nov. 1, the school finally granted a meeting to discuss an IEP, she said.

“In that time, he’s had a significant increase in seizures at his school causing fatigue, aggression and bed wetting during the night,” she said. Despite her hopes for the monitor, “nothing has improved for my son and it now feels like neither CPS nor the state are accountable for ensuring students like my son have a free and appropriate education.”