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.

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

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.

testing testing

New York has debated ‘innovative’ tests. But what does that actually mean?

In New York, the annual state tests still mean the usual multiple-choice questions and short writing prompts — and that’s not likely to change soon.

State officials recently chose not to apply to join a federal “innovative testing” program, which would have triggered an overhaul of the math and English tests that students in grades 3 to 8 take each year. (They cited the cost and difficulty of rolling out the new tests on the tight timeline required by the program.)

Yet in a state where nearly one in five families choose to boycott the exams — which many say do a poor job measuring students’ learning — pressure remains on policymakers to come up with new and better tests. They appear to have some interest in moving in that direction: The state’s education policy-making body, the Board of Regents, has established a workgroup focused partly on testing, and the state education commissioner has expressed interest in alternative graduation exams and new types of science and social studies tests.

If New York does pursue “innovative” assessments, what might they look like?

To answer that, we found four real-world examples of alternative assessments — two used in New York City, and two from other states. While each has its drawbacks, they show that “testing” doesn’t have to mean shading in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.

Example 1: Tasks used to evaluate teacher effectiveness (New York City)

Who takes them? Students in all grades, in subjects including math, English and the arts

What are they? Essays and short tasks

As part of New York City’s teacher evaluation system, schools can choose from a menu of assessments meant to measure how much teachers have helped their students learn. Among those “Measures of Student Learning” are tasks that require students to make an argument in a written essay by citing examples from texts they are provided.

Other kinds of “MOSL’s,” as they’re often called, go beyond essays. Teachers can administer “running records,” where they assess individual students’ English skills as they read a series of texts out loud. A visual-arts assessment asks students to draw a still-life picture.

What do they look like? A 12th-grade English test from several years ago asks students to answer the question, “Should individuals enlist in the military and fight for their country?” In order to make their case, students must read and cite a poem and a portion of President Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress.

What are the drawbacks? They are similar to standardized tests

The city teachers union negotiated with the city to include these tests in teacher evaluations, yet many teachers and school leaders have complained that they take up too much class time. Others question whether the assessments fairly measure students’ ability in subjects like art.

“Art is subjective,” said Jake Jacobs, a middle-school art teacher at Bronx Park Middle School. “If somebody is drawing something, who’s to say whether that drawing is good or bad?”  

Example 2: Projects required for graduation (New York City)

Who takes them? Students at 38 New York City high schools in the “Performance Standards Consortium”

What are they? Months-long projects

The consortium was established in the 1990s to bring together New York City educators seeking an alternative to traditional standardized tests. Today, schools in that group have state permission to substitute long-term projects for several of the Regents exams that students must pass in order to graduate. At those schools, each student must complete a literary essay, solve a complex math problem, design a science experiment, and complete a research paper in order to earn a diploma.

In their junior or senior years, they present their projects to a panel of judges, who evaluate whether the work meets the consortium’s requirements.

Sample questions: According to consortium materials, one student wrote a paper titled, “What Role Do Black Characters Play in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories?” Another produced a science experiment called, “How Does a Garter Snake Detect Its Prey?” Another wrote a research paper titled, “Who Or What Is Responsible for the End of Slavery in the United States?”

What are the drawbacks? Heavy workload for educators and students

Schools in the consortium must spend a lot of time training teachers to oversee students’ projects and ensuring that the work is held to the same standards across the consortium. For that reason, even Ann Cook, executive director and co-founder of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, says it would be difficulty to spread this model across the entire state.

“Could every kid in the state be doing this? I’d probably say no,” Cook said. “And the reason is that you have to have a faculty that is interested and wants to do it. They should want to opt into this because it takes a lot of work in the school.”

Example 3: Real-world problems (New Hampshire)

Who takes them? Students in grades K-12 in math, English, and science

What are they? Tasks based on real-world scenarios

New Hampshire students take traditional standardized exams once in elementary, middle, and high school. In the other years, they take alternative assessments after they finish studying units tied to the state standards. Called “Performance Assessment of Competency Education,” or PACE tests, they challenge students to apply skills they learn in class to real-world problems.

Sample question: After learning how to calculate volume, high school geometry students are given a task where they assume the role of a town planner. Their job is to design a water tower that can hold enough water to support the town’s growing population, but which requires a limited amount of material to build. The project, which students typically finish in a couple hours, must include a cover page, models or scale drawings, the calculations students made, and a written analysis of their design.

What are the drawbacks? Costly and difficult to scale

Though New Hampshire started experimenting with the “PACE” tests more than three years ago, they still have only been rolled out in a fraction of the state’s school districts. The state also had to rely partly on philanthropic funds to develop the expensive assessments, according to Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, who helped New Hampshire with its testing experiment.

Because of their high cost and difficulty to roll out statewide, Marion advised New York against adopting similar tests.

Example 4: Student-work portfolios (Vermont)

Who takes them? Previously, students in grades 4 and 8 in math and English

What are they? Portfolios of student work

In the early 1990s, Vermont schools began collecting pieces of student work throughout the year. Students stuffed portfolios with letters they’d written, poems, and math problems, which were then sent to the state for review.

Sample questions:  In a fourth-grade writing portfolio, students had to include their best piece of writing, a letter explaining what they’d written, a written response to a book or current issue, and a poem, short story, or personal narrative, according to a 1992 report co-authored by Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard.

What are the drawbacks? Hard to standardize

Vermont eventually scrapped the portfolio system. Officials decided that it was too hard to standardize them: The difficulty of the teacher-created math problems that students completed varied from school to school, for instance, and some students got help from their parents on certain projects while others didn’t, according to Koretz.

You can’t realistically compare a piece a student did alone,” he said, “with one that another student did with help from a parent — say, one with a degree in physics.”