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.”

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.