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

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

vote of confidence

Despite emerging grading scandal, Hopson gets longer contract — and a raise

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks at a back-to-school press conference for Shelby County Schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Amid a widening investigation stemming from allegations of grade-fixing at one Memphis high school, the school board made it clear Wednesday that it wants Dorsey Hopson at the helm.

The board voted to keep Hopson as superintendent until at least 2020, and to increase his annual pay from $269,000 to $285,000. That puts Hopson on par with Shawn Joseph, director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee’s second largest district behind Shelby County Schools.

The 8-0 vote came with one abstention from Chris Caldwell, who was chairman of the board in June when members voted to extend Hopson’s contract. (A technicality required the board to revisit the matter this week.)

“I cannot support the motion, either the dollar amount or the length,” Caldwell said. “We are in the middle of investigating a grading scandal…. This is far from over. So I think it’s premature to extend a contract to 2020. I think one year is all that I’m willing to agree to.”

But other board members said Hopson deserves more time because his performance has brought the district far more good than bad. His contract also requires a raise, they said, to correspond with hikes in teacher salaries the last two years.

“I know it’s not perfect. We’ve got a lot of balls in the air. It’s tough,” said board member Billy Orgel, adding that Hopson is doing “great work.”

The board’s vote of confidence came only hours after the superintendent spoke about the widening investigation into the high rate of grade changing at seven high schools including Trezevant High, where investigators found evidence of falsified grades and two employees have been fired.

Asked how much responsibility he bears as the district’s leader, Hopson told reporters that the buck stops with him.

“At the end of the day, as a superintendent, I’m really responsible and accountable for everything,” he said. “From my standpoint, I’ve tried my best to conduct myself in an ethical and transparent way. I think, if you look at my record, that’s what I’ve demonstrated. Having said that, when you’re in charge of an organization and something happens in an organization, you can’t shirk responsibility. Moving forward, what I’m even more responsible for is cleaning it up.”

Hopson has been in contact with the State Department of Education since September of 2016 when Trezevant’s new principal reported finding inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts. He ordered an internal review and, after the principal submitted a fiery resignation letter in June alleging a district cover-up, launched an external review by several investigators and a North Carolina accounting firm.

A technicality forced the board to revisit Hopson’s contract this week. In June, the body approved a contract that amounted to a six-year term — two years longer than allowed under a state rule, according to Herman Morris, the school board’s attorney.