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.”

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 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.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.