cheat sheet

Most monitored schools were flagged for cheating in advance

All but four of the three dozen schools that monitors visited in April as part of the city’s test security program had previously been the subject of cheating allegations.

Last spring, the Department of Education sent test monitors into 37 schools during a six-day period when students take standardized state tests, the results of which weigh heavily in how schools and teacher performances are measured.

Officials had previously billed the visits as a randomized tool to deter school staff from violating test security guidelines.

“Even schools that don’t actually get a visit … know that they could get a visit at any moment,” spokeswoman Connie Pankratz said of the program in August.

But it turns out that 33 of the 37 schools were not randomly selected at all, according to officials. Instead, the department was taking a hard look at the test administration practices of schools where it had already dispatched investigators to look into allegations of cheating.

Not all of the investigations are complete, but the ones that were substantiated turned up a mix of violations that could have given students a chance of performing better on the high-stakes tests. At one school, for instance, students used calculators on the exams even though they were prohibited.

The disclosure comes as the city grapples with ways to ensure that its test scores remain credible, even as the incentives to achieve higher scores multiply and funding for security measures remains scarce. In 2011, monitors visited 97 schools, but Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department reduced the program this year because of cuts to the central budget.

Investigators found violations at six of the 33 investigated schools, officials said.

The department provided basic information about the investigations to GothamSchools, but did not release entire reports from the cases.

At Aspire Preparatory Middle School, a teacher handed out calculators to students for a state exam, even though the devices were banned. At Esperanza Preparatory Academy, a staff member instructed teachers to give students more time on tests than was allowed.

Esperanza was among the schools that saw an unusually large decrease in test score proficiency rates in 2012 after monitors visited, just one year after the school doubled those rates.

At four schools where allegations were substantiated, Pankratz said a single teacher violated test proctoring guidelines by “providing assistance to students during exam administration.”

The four schools were M.S. 324 (Manhattan), P.S. 46 (Bronx), P.S. 044 (Bronx), and P.S. 193 (Brooklyn).

Principals at the schools either declined to comment or did not respond to requests seeking comment.

At one of the schools, P.S. 44, the number of fourth grade students who passed their math test nearly tripled in 2011; that number dropped by more than 40 percent after monitors visited.

“We have taken appropriate disciplinary action against these teachers,” Pankratz said, but she did not provide additional details.

Not all of the violations may have been intentional. A source said that the cheating allegation at M.S. 324 emerged from a misunderstanding and that it was substantiated on a technicality.  The person said that a teacher was overheard telling students who had finished their exams to review their answer sheets before submitting it.

Teacher proctors aren’t allow to speak during the exam except when giving directions or answering questions about the directions.

At 19 of the 33 schools, the department could not substantiate allegations of cheating or other test improprieties. That includes Choir Academy of Harlem, where test scores and graduation rates increased during the two-year helm of a former principal who was denied tenure and removed from the school last January. The test scores plummeted after the principal left and test monitors visited.

Eight schools are still under investigation.


School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede