Digging in

We read all 279 pages of reports about grade changes in Memphis. Here are five big takeaways.

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
At least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant High School shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade alterations, according to a report.

Reports detailing how grades were falsified at Trezevant High School have called into question whether grade changes happening at other Memphis high schools are legitimate.

Shelby County Schools released the results last week of a six-month investigation into how grades are handled at all 41 high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. The probe launched after a new Trezevant principal reported inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts at his school in September 2016.

We read all 279 pages of the reports by legal and accounting firms hired to look into the matter. Here are five takeaways:

1. Some of the allegations have merit.

Complaints that some grades had been changed on transcripts at Trezevant High ring true, according to the report, and there’s cause for suspicion at some other high schools, too.

A team of investigators led by former U.S. attorney Ed Stanton said at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade changes.

But Trezevant might not be alone. A separate report by a North Carolina accounting firm found a high rate of grade changes at six other high schools within Shelby County Schools. The average number of grade changes across all high schools was 53, but Trezevant had 461 and Kirby logged 582 between 2012 and 2016. A deeper probe into those schools has been ordered.

2. District leaders weren’t caught totally off guard

While expressing surprise at the findings, district administrators began building in safeguards to prevent illicit grade changes months before Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin reported finding discrepancies. Under a 2016 change, Shelby County Schools began requiring all teachers to use the same electronic grading database known as SMS.

“The District implemented this policy in an effort to effectuate a uniform and consistent method for grade entry which was designed to ensure truthful grading data,” the report said. “As an additional safeguard, SCS also required school principals to implement grading protocols aimed at ensuring the accuracy of the grades that teachers entered into SMS.”

Additionally, Mackin told investigators that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin “informed him that there was an ‘adult culture problem’ and ‘a financial mess’ that needed to be ‘cleaned up’ at Trezevant.”

And this week, Hopson said rumors of grade-changing have been floating around for years.

“As a Memphian, who went to school here, far back as high school, I would always hear rumors of people changing people’s grades,” he told reporters. “That’s persisted for a long period of time.”

3. Grade floors and grade tampering aren’t the same thing.

Around the same time that Mackin turned over evidence of falsified grades, he implemented a “grade floor” policy in which Trezevant students don’t receive grades below a certain threshold.

So if a student was failing a class, Mackin discouraged teachers from giving that student a grade below 60 percent because “there is a mathematical impossibility of scoring high enough to make up the grade in the future,” he wrote in an email to then-supervisor Tonye Smith-McBride. Such low grades would contribute to a lack of student motivation and behavior issues, he argued.

Mackin told investigators that he was referring to future grades, but the timing of his directive appeared to contribute to confusion about grading policies at Trezevant, making some teachers think that their principal was instructing them to retroactively change failing grades to passing ones.

Trezevant isn’t alone in having grade floors. Hopson said other schools have similar practices and that he would like a uniform policy on the issue. Stanton’s report makes that recommendation.

4. Investigators found no evidence to support other complaints that were not about academics.

Mackin’s six-page resignation letter on June 1 accused Shelby County Schools of a cover-up and said that he was being painted as a scapegoat for questionable finances at Trezevant.

“Our investigation has determined that no cover up occurred,” the report read, adding that investigators found no evidence that Mackin was “wrongfully targeted” either as the district looked into finances.

In fact, the report noted that, in several public statements, district leaders hailed Mackin for unearthing suspicious activity on grades. As for a cover-up, Hopson alerted the State Department of Education in a timely matter that the district was conducting an internal review into Mackin’s concerns.

Investigators also found no evidence to support Mackin’s allegations that Trezevant’s football coach mis-reported the school’s enrollment to state athletic officials and that his supervisor had sexually harassed him.

5. There’s still lots of questions to be answered.

The accounting firm hired to review transcript changes at Memphis high schools found that 10 schools had more than 200 instances from 2012 to 2016. However, the review team could not determine if any were fraudulent and concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Investigators also were hampered from getting to the truth at Trezevant without the subpoena power that compels witnesses to speak up.

For example, investigators could not locate several people that Mackin claimed had evidence that would incriminate football coach Teli White, who has since been fired, regarding allegations that he paid student-athletes. They also could not search White’s email or bank accounts to look into allegations of financial fraud.

Hopson told reporters this week that his administration is considering turning over a list of former school administrators to Shelby County’s district attorney, who would have subpoena power in the matter. The superintendent, who is an attorney, said the findings of the first external review may merit a criminal investigation.

The full report by Butler Snow & Dixon Hughes Goodman is available here.

The full Ogletree Deakins report is available here.

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.