grading scandal

Grade changing at some Memphis schools prompts state order for more audits

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event in Memphis. (Photo by Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat)

Improper grade-changing at two high schools in Tennessee’s largest district has prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to order follow-up audits for the next three years from Shelby County Schools.

In her sternest comments yet on the widening scandal in Memphis, McQueen called the findings of last year’s grading investigation “extremely troubling.” She relayed her order to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in a Dec. 5 letter.

The investigation, completed in November by the Memphis law firm of Butler Snow, found that 53 students at Trezevant High School received diplomas without passing the necessary classes. It also found a high rate of grade changes in several other high schools, and the district has since reported finding evidence of improper grade changes at Hamilton High School.

The district already has revised some of its protocols for entering and revising grades and continues to add safeguards to its electronic grading system — changes that Hopson and his team provided details on during a Dec. 20 conference call with McQueen.

In a letter two days later, the commissioner asked for documentation of what the district has done “to immediately address this matter to ensure the integrity of student records is maintained and employees are acting lawfully.” She specifically asked for an accounting of which job classifications have access to the grading system, the agendas for trainings to guide employees on the changes, and all written policies and procedures for entering and editing grades.

In a statement released on Friday, Hopson said Shelby County Schools has worked collaboratively with the state to improve its processes and strengthen its internal controls. “We will continue to do so and thank the State for its feedback, recommendations and support,” he said.

Shelby County Schools has been reeling since last June when Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin released a fiery resignation letter alleging a cover-up of discrepancies between student transcripts and report cards, prompting an independent investigation of grading at all Memphis high schools. A coach and secretary at Trezevant have since been fired, and the district suspended the principal of Hamilton High School in December over improper grade changes that happened under her watch. Hopson also has temporarily halted the use of “grade floors,” a practice of setting a minimum on the lowest grade a teacher can assign, which had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy.

McQueen has praised the district’s initial steps but, in her Dec. 22 letter, listed eight specific questions that the district “should be asking to better understand what happened and how it can be remedied.” She asked that Hopson provide answers to her after further investigation on:

  • Why does district leadership think the problem occurred?
  • Do employees understand their responsibilities regarding the duties of entering and editing grades but are failing to fulfill those responsibilities?
  • Are employees not aware of the proper procedures with regard to entering and editing grades?
  • Has training around the policies and procedures of entering and editing grades been clear and provided as often as necessary?
  • Does district leadership think policies and procedures need to be developed or revised to address proper entering and editing of grades?
  • Was district leadership already aware of the problem and been working on it?
  • Does the district’s electronic grading system maintain an audit log of changes, and if so, does someone have the job of checking it regularly to minimize the risk of improper grade changes?
  • What is the district’s plan to review, on a case by case basis, the transcripts of students, still enrolled, whose grades were improperly changed, to ensure students are negatively impacted as little as possible by this issue?

State spokeswoman Sara Gast said Thursday that the Department of Education’s role now is to ensure that “appropriate actions are taken to minimize the risks of this happening again.” She said state and district leaders are having ongoing discussions, and that the scope of the follow-up audits is yet to be determined. She also called the situation in Shelby County Schools a first for the state.

“Very occasionally, districts will let us know they have found potential issues with grade discrepancies, but just like in this case, they will self-report to us, complete a full investigation, consult with us as needed, and take steps to ensure that it does not happen again,” Gast said. “This is the first time we have heard of a situation where many of the discrepancies seemed to be tied to student athletes’ grades and where the scope of the overall issue may be larger.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement issued Jan. 5 from Superintendent Hopson.

Clarification: Jan. 5, 2018: The headline on a previous version of this story said Tennessee has ordered a three-year audit of Memphis schools. State officials say the exact nature of how multiple audits will occur over the next three years has not been determined, and the headline has been changed to reflect that.

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.