Grade changing

Memphis principal demoted over grade changes will not be reinstated

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Shelby County Schools demoted Hamilton High School Principal Monekea Smith last year for giving another employee her login credentials and not ensuring student grades were accurate. Smith says the grades were accurate.

The Memphis principal who was demoted last year over what district officials said were improper grade changes will not get her job back.

The Shelby County Schools board voted 6-0 Wednesday evening not to reinstate Monekea Smith, the former principal of Hamilton High School, and denied her requests for back pay and compensation for her attorney fees. Board members Kevin Woods, Scott McCormick, and Stephanie Love were absent for the vote.

The dispute between the district and Smith boils down to how principals show evidence of changes to student grades, which can be legitimate if a student completes a process known as course recovery or makeup assignments. Smith contends that the grade changes made on her watch, using her password, were justified and district officials failed to produce evidence to the contrary.

“All I am is a scapegoat for the district,” Smith told reporters after the school board’s decision.

Shelby County Schools suspended Smith in December 2017 and demoted her the following month. She was since re-assigned elsewhere in the district, though is not currently working.

Hamilton was the second high school implicated in a 2017 investigation into passing students who had not earned the credit. Two Trezevant High School staffers were fired, after Butler Snow, the law firm that Shelby County Schools retained, found a “pervasive” culture of grade changes at that school.

Both Trezevant and Hamilton high schools are part of the district’s prized Innovation Zone that has boosted state test scores in about two dozen of the lowest performing schools in Tennessee. Neither of the high schools, which entered the program in 2014, have exited the state’s list of low-performing schools.

Led by former U.S. attorney Ed Stanton, the investigation into Hamilton High School showed that Smith gave her password to the online grading system to Myron Huitt, a librarian. Huitt used that access to change 20 report card grades from failing to passing “without the knowledge and/or justification of the course’s assigned teacher,” which is against district policy. The district’s attorney noted Smith did not have the proper documentation required by the district to justify the revisions.

Huitt is still an employee of the district, according to Smith’s lawyer Maureen Holland.

“I never wrongfully changed grades. I never directed anyone to wrongfully change grades. I just don’t stand for that,” Smith told board members during the hearing.

Following the meeting, she went on to say that she had been following district protocol: “The district knows as principals we are told to give the kids a last-ditch effort, every opportunity to pass. We are told to come up with makeup packets. And then when the public finds out, they want to make like ‘Oh, we don’t tell you guys to do that.’ That is a lie.”

Smith also said that grades for online classes, such as the class at issue in this matter, needed to be transferred manually into the district’s grading system. She said that, in some cases, the legitimate input of grades showed up as grade changes.

Holland said Smith should have been given the same benefit of a doubt Shelby County Schools gave to other principals who lacked grade change forms that must be approved by the teacher and reviewed by the principal. The district halted a costly investigation into other high schools that were found to have high instances of grade changes because they lacked the proper documentation to prove or disprove wrongdoing.

Smith’s case began with a complaint that a former teacher, Michael Pleasants, filed, asserting that administrators had increased the grades he assigned for some makeup assignments to justify the students’ final grade in his class.

“If I fail any kids that’s a really bad metric for a school. The only thing Hamilton had going for it as a metric was its graduation rate,” Pleasants, who is now working as a substitute teacher, told Chalkbeat by phone after the hearing.

He said Smith had put pressure on teachers “to pass students who otherwise would not have passed,” and to graduate those failing students.

Holland, meanwhile, called Pleasants as a “disgruntled employee” who knew he would soon be fired.

District officials also said that Smith had given Huitt her login credentials in violation of district instructions to safeguard passwords as displayed on its login screen. Smith testified it is common practice for principals to authorize another employee to make changes in the grading system, noting, “I don’t know how to go in there and work that system. We (principals) just oversee it.”

Almost exactly a year ago, 200 students walked out of class to protest Smith’s suspension that led to her demotion.

“If you don’t trust her with some grades why would you give her a teaching job where she could mess with grades if it was a situation with grade changes? So, I didn’t understand that,” Danyell McAdams, the school’s former student body president, who organized the protest, told Chalkbeat on Tuesday.

Since the scandal surfaced at Trezevant High School in 2016, Shelby County Schools has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and requires monthly reports from principals, detailing any changes to grades. The district has also vowed to draft a new grade change policy and implement a new electronic grade-changing process.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: