Widening investigation

Hopson halts ‘grade floors’ as second Memphis high school implicated in grade-changing probe

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has led Tennessee's largest school district since 2013 and has been challenged in 2017 by allegations of grade tampering in some Shelby County schools.

A widening investigation into grade-changing at Memphis high schools has led to the suspension of one principal and a moratorium on a controversial grading practice across Shelby County Schools.

Hamilton High School Principal Monekea Smith was suspended without pay after investigators found that improper grade changes happened under her watch, a district spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson also issued a moratorium on the use of “grade floors” after determining that the practice was being abused to justify unwarranted grade changes at Hamilton.

“Effective immediately, we are instituting a moratorium on the use of grade floors,” Hopson wrote Tuesday in an email to teachers. “Grade floors were meant to ensure failing grades did not go below a certain level, so our students would have a better chance of improvement. It was never intended to allow the changing of grades from failing to passing, and anyone found guilty of doing so will face immediate disciplinary action.”

The developments reflect the widening scope of an investigation into allegations of falsified grades at Memphis high schools. The examination began last year at Trezevant High School when its former principal noticed discrepancies between transcripts and report cards. A coach and a secretary have been dismissed there after investigators found evidence of wrongdoing, but the suspension of Hamilton’s principal is the first to affect other schools.

A grade floor is the lowest grade a teacher can assign a student during a single period and had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy. Independent investigators hired to look into Trezevant recommended that Shelby County Schools create uniform rules on the matter.

Hopson’s directive to ban grade floors — for now — means that teachers and administrators are not allowed to give a higher grade than what a failing student earned. He plans to propose a new policy in January based on feedback from educators.

Proponents of grade floors had called them a useful tool to motivate students who lag far behind to bring up their grades — for instance, bumping a student performing at 20 percent up to a 60 percent on a scale that requires at least a 70 percent to pass.

But the practice had gotten out of hand at Hamilton, according to Hopson.

Hamilton had not been mentioned in almost 300 pages of reports from investigators who found that 10 high schools had high rates of grade changes.

However, Hamilton was cited in a draft report from Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney who led one investigation, according to a high-level source familiar with the report. Stanton’s team found grading changes at Hamilton and recommended further investigation, but the recommendation never made it into the final report.

District officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why the recommendation was omitted from the final report. They also declined to elaborate on whether the changes at Hamilton are the result of the external investigation or an internal review.

Former Hamilton teacher Michael Pleasants was interviewed by Stanton’s team and reported that some of his students’ grades had been improperly changed during his two-year tenure. Pleasants told Chalkbeat that the district should look even wider than the schools with high instances of grade changes, citing a “pervasive” culture of pressuring teachers to pass students who aren’t ready.

“Don’t try to scapegoat anybody over this. It isn’t just one person,” he said. “It shouldn’t be presented as just a few bad apples but most people do their jobs right.”

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.