Making the grade

What we know so far about an alleged grading scandal in Memphis, and why it’s not as unusual as you might think

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Before becoming principal of Trezevant High School in 2016, Ronnie Mackin was principal at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, both in Memphis. Trezevant is at the center of an alleged grading scandal that led to an audit of Shelby County Schools.

The ongoing audit of Shelby County Schools’ high school records has garnered renewed interest after the principal who first reported possible grading irregularities resigned abruptly last week from Trezevant High School, a football powerhouse in Memphis.

But investigations into grading and testing practices are fairly common across the nation, and not unheard of in Tennessee.

Last year, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools launched an internal investigation into allegations that educators were pulling low-performing students out of testing to boost the image of several struggling schools. The review found no widespread violations, but warned that “the state’s current calculation of on-time graduation rate in a four-year period puts increased pressure on teachers and students to pass classes and earn credits.”

Districts with many impoverished students who lag by several grades are particularly susceptible to allegations of cheating in an era of high-stakes testing and accountability, said Erich Martel, a retired teacher and whistleblower for grading scams that surfaced in Washington, D.C. in 2001.

“A lot of students come into school and they are poorly socialized for the school learning environment. But because there is pressure to promote, students are promoted,” Martel said. The result is that “students who have not mastered the requirements from the previous grade … are expected to master the next higher grade.”

The independent audit of Memphis high schools launched earlier this year after Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin reported inaccuracies and inconsistencies in transcripts and report cards.

Those irregularities were highlighted again last week when Mackin submitted a resignation letter charging a district cover-up of an alleged grading scandal — an accusation that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has denied.

In his seven-page, single-spaced letter, Mackin also alleged that other schools, particularly in the district’s high-profile school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone, are altering grades as well.

The district’s independent audit, ordered by Shelby County Schools in consultation with the State Department of Education, is being conducted by a North Carolina-based CPA firm. Among other things, it’s looking into evidence that Mackin turned over to district leaders last fall of altered grades for several athletes on Trezevant’s championship football team, along with most of the senior class.

“While there was no evidence that any other schools had discrepancies in student transcripts, the District and Tennessee Department of Education agreed a proactive audit was necessary to ensure all student records were being handled properly,” Shelby County Schools said in a statement Monday.

Below is a timeline of events in the case:

April 2016 — Ronnie Mackin named principal of Trezevant High School for the 2016-17 school year

September 2016 — Mackin reports possible grading irregularities to district leaders

September 30, 2016 — Superintendent Dorsey Hopson alerts the Tennessee Department of Education of its internal investigation into the matter

February 2017 — Shelby County Schools hires Dixon Hughes Goodman, a CPA firm headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., to conduct an audit on all high schools

June 1, 2017 — Mackin submits resignation letter to Shelby County Schools

rules and regs

New York shortens length of ‘gag order’ on teachers discussing Regents questions online

PHOTO: G. Tatter

After pushback from teachers, the New York State Education Department has changed a new provision that temporarily prohibits teachers from discussing Regents exam questions online.

The original rule stated that teachers could not use email or a listserv to discuss test questions or other specific content with other teachers until a week after the exam period ended on June 23. As Chalkbeat reported Tuesday, teachers objected, arguing that they sometimes needed to discuss questions in order to properly grade the tests or to challenge questions that seems unfair.

Under the change, tests taken between June 13 and June 16 can be discussed online beginning June 23. And for those taken between June 19 and June 22, teachers can discuss content online beginning June 27.

According to education department officials, the provision was intended to ensure that testing material did not spread online before all students had completed their exams, particularly among schools that serve students with special needs, who qualify for multiple-day testing.

“We believe that nearly all students who are testing with this accommodation will have completed their exams by these dates,” Steven Katz, director of the Office of State Assessment, wrote in a memo to school principals and leaders.

Still, longtime physics teacher Gene Gordon and former president of the Science Teachers Association of New York State noted that, to some extent, the damage was done since the amendment to the rule came out only after many teachers had already graded their exams.

“It did not have any real effect,” Gordon said.

The New York State United Teachers — which criticized the new provision on Tuesday as a “gag order” and called for its repeal — called the amendment a “clear victory” for educators. Still, NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn told Chalkbeat, “it clearly will be more helpful in the future than this year.”

Testing Testing

Calculator mix-up could force some students to retake ISTEP, and Pearson is partially to blame

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

ISTEP scores for thousands of students across the state will be thrown out this year, including at two Indianapolis private schools, according to state officials.

The mishap can be traced back to calculators. Students at 20 schools used calculators on a section of the 2017 ISTEP math test when they shouldn’t have — in at least one district because of incorrect instructions from Pearson, the company that administers the tests in Indiana.

It’s a small glitch compared to the massive testing issues Indiana experienced with its previous testing company, CTB McGraw Hill. But years of problems have put teachers, students and parents on high alert for even minor hiccups. In 2013, for example, about 78,000 students had their computers malfunction during testing. Pearson began administering ISTEP in 2016.

The calculator mix-up involving Pearson happened in Rochester Community Schools, located about two hours north of Indianapolis. About 700 students in three schools received the incorrect instructions.

Molly Deuberry, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said that Rochester is the only district known to have received the incorrect instructions, but the state is also investigating calculator-related problems at 19 other schools.

According to federal rules, students who use calculators on non-calculator test sections must have their scores labeled as “undetermined.” Current sophomores will need to retake the test, since passing the 10th-grade exam is a graduation requirement in Indiana. Students will have multiple opportunities to do so, including during the summer, state officials said.

It’s not clear how the invalidated scores will affect those schools’ A-F letter grades. It is up to the Indiana State Board of Education to handle A-F grade appeals, which districts can request once grades are released.

“The Department and State Board will collaborate to ensure that the State Board receives sufficient detail about this incident when reviewing the appeals,” the education department said in an email.

Pearson spokesman Scott Overland said in an email that they would work with the education department to follow up on the calculator issues and correct their processes for next year.

“In some cases, Pearson inadvertently provided inaccurate or unclear guidance on the use of calculators during testing,” Overland said. “In these instances, we followed up quickly to help local school officials take corrective action.”

Here are the districts and schools the state says had students incorrectly use calculators on this year’s ISTEP:

  • Covington Christian School, Covington
  • Eastbrook South Elementary, Eastbrook Schools
  • Eastern Hancock Elementary School, Eastern Hancock County Schools
  • Emmanuel-St. Michael Lutheran School, Fort Wayne
  • Frankfort Middle School, Frankfort Community Schools
  • George M Riddle Elementary School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Lasalle Elementary School, School City of Mishawaka
  • New Haven Middle School, East Allen County Schools
  • Rochester Community Middle School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Rochester Community High School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Saint Boniface School, Lafayette
  • Saint Joseph High School, South Bend
  • Saint Roch Catholic School, Indianapolis
  • Silver Creek Middle School, West Clark Community Schools
  • St. Louis de Montfort School, Lafayette
  • Tennyson Elementary School, Warrick County Schools
  • Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, School City of Hammond
  • Trinity Christian School, Indianapolis
  • Waterloo Elementary School, DeKalb County Schools
  • Westfield Middle School, Westfield-Washington Schools

This story has been updated to include comments from Pearson.