technical difficulties

Regents scoring issues continue to pile up as graduations near

Sweeping and serious problems with a new system for grading high school Regents exams persisted today, the date by which one set of tests was supposed to be completely graded.

The new system, designed to curb score inflation, requires teachers to report to central sites to grade answers that have been scanned and meted out by McGraw-Hill, the testing company. Educators from across the city are reporting that teachers were sent back to their schools early again today from grading sites because there were not enough essays to score. At other sites, scorers said they were told to stay put but not given papers to grade.

“We arrived at scoring today at 8:30 only to be sent away at 9,” wrote a commenter posting as AlvySinger in response to our story about the grading issues from Tuesday.

“1:08 pm. Nothing to grade,” another commenter wrote. The story has received nearly 50 comments from educators and others who are distressed about the scoring situation.

Several readers noted that a solution exists to a different issue that left some essays unreadable in the computer system — but that the fix requires compromising the anonymity of the exams, a main reason for the new scoring system in the first place.

“By simply hitting ‘zoom out’ on the computer settings, the student’s name, school and ID number (if they wrote it) is revealed — worked on EVERY test, EVERY time,” Queens wrote. “However, it allowed for the ‘blocked out’ parts from bad scans to be seen as well.”

The scoring delays are important because some seniors need to earn passing scores in order to graduate. The Department of Education told principals late Tuesday that they should bend the rules and allow seniors who have fulfilled all other requirements to participate in graduation ceremonies, with the caveat that they must be told that they won’t get a diploma until they have a passing exam score.

A teacher who is coordinating his school’s graduation ceremony, which takes place on Monday, said he’s been fielding calls from students who need to pass their Regents in order to graduate. They’ve called to ask if they can pick up their cap and gown or reserve seats for their parents, which they couldn’t do under the regular rules.

“If you’re a senior on the fence, waiting to see if you’re going to graduate, you’re pretty nervous” the teacher said. He estimated that 20 students, or about 10 percent, of students at his school are affected. “There’s not much I can tell them,” the teacher said. “We’re forced to tell them that it hasn’t been graded.”

The teacher called the situation at his testing center “a nightmare, to put it bluntly.” He said mornings have been busy — he’s graded about 40 essays per day — but that scanned tests slow to a trickle in the afternoon. He said he graded three essays yesterday between 12:30 and 3 p.m. Normally, he said he would be able to grade about 20 essays per hour.

Other problems with the electronic scoring system — being used for four frequently taken tests, in Living Environment, Global Studies, U.S. history, and English — have teachers concerned that students’ scores could be negatively affected.

Those issues could be compounded as the department searches for educators to score exams after school and over the weekend. (McGraw-Hill will cover the overtime pay from its $3.5 million contract for the year, city officials said on Tuesday. Its total contract is for $9.6 million over three years.)

“I was just informed that I have been scheduled to grade the Geometry Regents over the next few days. I have taught High School ENGLISH for 14 years–why do I need to spend two days at another location grading a test I have no business being involved with?” wrote Kelli, a GothamSchools commenter.

“Exactly,” wrote Science Teacher, in response. “I was sent to grade Living Environment and I have never taught LE. Granted I am a science teacher and I understood the material, [but] there were other teachers way out of their own subject who were not well versed in the subject.”

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

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