Trezevant probe

Grade changes pervasive in Memphis high schools, analysis shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trezevant High School serves the Frayser community under Shelby County Schools in Memphis. A former principal's allegations of grade tampering led to several internal and external investigations.

A four-year analysis of final grades across Memphis high schools found that Trezevant High is not alone in frequent instances of changed transcripts.

In fact, Trezevant had Shelby County Schools’ second highest number of transcript changes from “failing” to “passing,” according to a North Carolina accounting firm that conducted a district-wide review in the wake of allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant.

Kirby High School logged the most changes — 582 — between July 2012 and October 2016, the period covered by the analysis. Trezevant had 461. They were followed by Raleigh-Egypt with 429, Bolton with 314, and Power Center Academy with 308. The average number of grade changes across all of the district’s high schools was 53.

The analysis from the firm of Dixon Hughes Goodman was included within two massive reports released Tuesday evening in conjunction with a presentation to the school board.

While changes to transcripts don’t necessarily mean that grades were tampered with, the analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told reporters later that his administration will work with the school board to determine how to proceed with a deeper probe. Both he and the board expressed deep regret to students and families impacted by the scandal.

“Our hope is that, moving forward, employees understand the importance of safeguarding all student records and that they will adhere to the processes put in place to avoid a situation like this from happening again,” said a statement from the board.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The reports were released more than a year after then-Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin contacted district leaders with concerns about possible grade tampering at his school. He later released a fiery resignation letter alleging a cover-up by district leadership of “corrupt, illegal and unethical activities.” The charge was denied by Hopson but prompted the launch of several external investigations, one of which found no evidence of a cover-up.

One of those probes focused specifically on Trezevant and found a pervasive culture of changing grades so that more students could pass courses to increase the school’s graduation rate. Mackin’s letter had focused on student athletes on the school’s championship football team, but investigators said the problem went further than that.

“The majority of individuals whose grades were changed were non-athletes. This was not just an athletic scandal,” said Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney hired to look into the matter.

In all, at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas, according to Stanton’s report.

After Stanton’s presentation, the school board voted unanimously to fire former football coach Teli White, who has been suspended since June pending the investigation’s outcome. But board members left the door open to other possible dismissals later.

“We know there were people who were in that building for quite some time …,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “I think it’s worth looking into because those people may be in other positions in authority.”

Stanton recommended that the district create an alert system when transcripts are changed digitally and a uniform policy on grade minimums that contributed to students being “unduly advanced” to the next grade. He also urged the district to require monthly reports from principals explaining any transcript changes and to regularly audit such changes.

District leaders report that, this year, they already have conducted special trainings of school personnel with access to grades and invested in new software and personnel to oversee the data.

Board members were frustrated and even angry about the results of the probes, especially after Hopson assured them in June that possible grade-changing issues were isolated to Trezevant based on the evidence at that time.

“We have to all know and understand that we have royally messed over some of these children in this district, especially when we pass them and gave them a diploma when we knew — we knew — they were not eligible to graduate. So, I hope that this report is a lesson to us all,” said Stephanie Love, whose district includes Trezevant High.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Before becoming principal of Trezevant High School in 2016, Ronnie Mackin was principal at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, both in Memphis.

Lawyers hired to investigate Mackin’s subsequent allegations — including that he was being targeted for dismissal because of alleged financial fraud at Trezevant — found no basis for that claim.

Reached by Chalkbeat later Tuesday night, Mackin did not immediately comment on the findings.

Dixon Hughes Goodman was hired to review four years worth of student transcripts from all high schools in Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district. The company scanned every transcript in the district’s database to flag schools with high instances of grade changes for further investigation. The review took months longer than originally targeted.

You can find the full report by Stanton’s group, including the analysis by Dixon Hughes Goodman, here. Other reports related to the investigations are available on the district’s website.

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jessica Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”

Chalkbeat explains

Four reasons Tennessee likely won’t go back to paper testing

As another wave of problems with online testing plague Tennessee schools, one of the solutions proposed by state legislators — go back to paper exams — is a stretch for a state that has invested millions into electronic exams.

In short, reverting to pencil-and-paper tests would be akin to ordering iPhone users to go back to flip phones. It almost certainly won’t happen.

Two Memphis-area state lawmakers want to ban the online version of TNReady starting next school year until the state comptroller determines its problems are “fully and completely fixed.” And other lawmakers suggest districts should be able to choose between paper and electronic testing..

(Other amendments that would ensure this year’s test results wouldn’t count against teachers, students, or schools passed Thursday.)

The list of problems has grown since the first day of testing Monday, affecting about two dozen districts, including the four largest ones in Tennessee. The meltdown follows the monumental online failure in 2016 when a server crash prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most of state testing that year.

Here are four reasons why it’s unlikely Tennessee won’t go back to paper testing despite current overwhelming frustrations:

Superintendents think they’ve gone too far to turn back now. Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead cautioned against rash decisions in the heat of the moment.

“When things like this happen, it’s easy to overreact,” he told Chalkbeat. “But we’ve come too far. We know that online testing is the future. If we turn back, it will take a long time to get back to where we were.”

And school systems and counties have poured millions into infrastructure and devices, said Dale Lynch, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

“We don’t want to back up. We want to get it right, though,” he said.

Paper is more time consuming. With online testing, McQueen said Wednesday, “we can get test materials [and scores] back or to folks much quicker.”

Preparing paper tests requires hours of sorting and labeling exams. And if the materials arrive late, like they did for several districts this month because of severe weather at Questar’s printing center in the Northeast, the time crunch is especially stressful.

Granted, a top-notch online system that protects against cheating and hacking could be more expensive than a paper version, said Wayne Camara, the research chair at ACT who has long overseen test security.

“The issue of cost is relative.” he said. Multiple versions of computer tests are necessary to help safeguard against cheating, especially via social media.

“If you’ve having to produce 10 or 15 forms of a computer test, most likely it’s not cheaper.”

If Tennessee switches back to paper testing, it will be one of few states nationwide. A recent analysis by John Hopkins School of Education listed 11 states that were still using paper tests in 2016 for elementary students. For middle schools, it was nine states.

Nearly across the board, those states with no experience with online testing did worse in national online testing.


Read more about Tennessee’s most recent performance on “the nation’s report card.”


There’s security issues with paper too. The alleged cyber attack on Questar’s data center Tuesday spraked a statewide outcry, but switching back to paper won’t eliminate security issues.

“Both digital- and paper-based testing are certainly susceptible to cheating,” said Camara, the testing cybersecurity expert. “I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a significant reduction of security measures or cheating with computers, it’s just different.”

One of the largest state test cheating scandals happened in Atlanta with paper tests when principals and teachers changed student answers. That’s much harder to do online.

Jacinthia Jones and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.