technical difficulties

Serious glitches with electronic grading delay Regents scores

A slew of glitches in the city’s electronic grading for Regents exams have delayed scores for several subjects, just days before high schools are set to begin holding graduation ceremonies.

The problems represent at best a significant inconvenience and cost and at worst a threat to students’ scores and graduation status, according to educators with knowledge of the grading process.

This is the first June that all Regents exams taken at city high schools are being graded through “distributed scoring,” an arrangement devised to prevent teachers from scoring tests taken by students at their schools. Until last year, teachers graded their own students’ exams, but under pressure to show that test scores are not inflated, the state barred that practice. The city’s scoring system extends the state’s rules.

After a pilot last year, the Department of Education opted to have four of the most-taken tests — Living Environment, Global Studies, U.S. History, and English — scored electronically. McGraw-Hill, the vendor administering the process, collects the exams at schools, transports them to a scanning site in Connecticut, and then distributes answers one by one to teachers stationed at computers in city grading centers.

The company is getting $3.5 million this year from the city to administer the distributed scoring program, part of a $9.6 million, three-year contract to manage the logistical acrobatics that the new arrangement requires.

The process resulted in quicker and scoring during the pilot, according to Adina Lopatin, the department’s deputy chief academic officer. She said teachers moved more quickly through exam responses because they did not have to shuffle through papers.

But the time savings have been more than negated by serious glitches as the city has scaled up electronic scoring to include all high schools this month. At some schools, exams were not picked up until days after they were taken, teachers said. Teachers have reported to scoring sites daily, only to be sent back to their schools after being told that not enough items had been scanned for them to grade.

And even when there are answers to score, bandwidth issues have prevented teachers from grading them quickly in some schools, and in others, McGraw-Hill’s efforts to redact identifying information about students left answers partially obscured. One teacher said his site had graded just 20 exams on Monday and another 50 today because of the problems.

The cumulative result is that three exams required for graduation will not be graded by the department’s expected deadline. Niket Mull, who directs the Office of Assessment, sent an email to principals on Monday explaining that the Living Environment exam would be scored not by Wednesday but by Friday. Instead of being scored by Thursday, the history exams will not be complete until the end of the week or even Monday.

Schools begin holding graduation ceremonies on Thursday, although most are scheduled for next week. Schools are also in the process of determining who needs to attend summer school and what courses students should take next fall, decisions that can’t be made until scores are in.

One principal who estimated that at least 50 students at his school need scores to graduate that seem unlikely to arrive in time for the school’s commencement. He said he would be asking their parents to sign a form indicating that they understand that graduation is conditional on the test scores.

“I’ve never had to do that before,” the principal said. “I’m pretty strict about allowing kids to walk if they haven’t met the requirements. … But this is different.”

That’s the process that the department will be advising principals to use, softening a normally hard and fast rule that students cannot walk at graduation if they have not met all of the requirements, according to Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman.

Hughes said McGraw-Hill would pay for teachers’ overtime pay if scoring has to happen over the weekend, something she said she was not sure would happen.

When the department put out a call for teachers to grade the global history exam in January, only about 60 percent as many signed up as were needed, and the city was forced to drop the requirement that schools not grade their own tests. Many, many more exams are taken in June.

A teacher who was sent home early from a Brooklyn grading site on Monday after exhausting the answers in the online system said he was told that weekend scoring would be inevitable. Only about a quarter of the city’s 60,000 global studies exams have been graded, he said administrators at the site told graders today.

He said he also worried that the electronic scoring system would adversely affect students’ scores. Many of the essays he saw had the first several lines blocked out by McGraw-Hill’s effort to obscure details about students, and he said he marked all of the essays as unreadable.

Another issue, teachers said, is that graders might have marked essays as unwritten if students began them in the wrong place in the test booklet, or as not responding to the question if students wrote the wrong essay in each space.

“Back in the paper days you could flip around the booklet to see what else the student wrote, and figure out if the first essay was in fact the DBQ, and the essay in “Part IIIB” page was the thematic,” said a teacher with eight years of experience grading Regents exams, referring to the two essay types on history exams.

And a third teacher said bandwidth issues meant that several minutes elapsed at times between when graders asked for the next page to load and when it appeared on their screen. “This is asking a teacher with tired eyes from staring at a computer screen to remember that essay they were reading and pick up later,” the teacher said. “I can’t imagine this … having no negative effects on students.”

Overall, teachers said, the glitches raised serious questions about the city’s decision to outsource a grading process that had always been done in-house.

“We could have done this already if we’d had the exams in the school,” one teacher said. “It’s very unsettling and not good for the students.”

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