Trezevant probe

Grade changes pervasive in Memphis high schools, analysis shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trezevant High School serves the Frayser community under Shelby County Schools in Memphis. A former principal's allegations of grade tampering led to several internal and external investigations.

A four-year analysis of final grades across Memphis high schools found that Trezevant High is not alone in frequent instances of changed transcripts.

In fact, Trezevant had Shelby County Schools’ second highest number of transcript changes from “failing” to “passing,” according to a North Carolina accounting firm that conducted a district-wide review in the wake of allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant.

Kirby High School logged the most changes — 582 — between July 2012 and October 2016, the period covered by the analysis. Trezevant had 461. They were followed by Raleigh-Egypt with 429, Bolton with 314, and Power Center Academy with 308. The average number of grade changes across all of the district’s high schools was 53.

The analysis from the firm of Dixon Hughes Goodman was included within two massive reports released Tuesday evening in conjunction with a presentation to the school board.

While changes to transcripts don’t necessarily mean that grades were tampered with, the analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told reporters later that his administration will work with the school board to determine how to proceed with a deeper probe. Both he and the board expressed deep regret to students and families impacted by the scandal.

“Our hope is that, moving forward, employees understand the importance of safeguarding all student records and that they will adhere to the processes put in place to avoid a situation like this from happening again,” said a statement from the board.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The reports were released more than a year after then-Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin contacted district leaders with concerns about possible grade tampering at his school. He later released a fiery resignation letter alleging a cover-up by district leadership of “corrupt, illegal and unethical activities.” The charge was denied by Hopson but prompted the launch of several external investigations, one of which found no evidence of a cover-up.

One of those probes focused specifically on Trezevant and found a pervasive culture of changing grades so that more students could pass courses to increase the school’s graduation rate. Mackin’s letter had focused on student athletes on the school’s championship football team, but investigators said the problem went further than that.

“The majority of individuals whose grades were changed were non-athletes. This was not just an athletic scandal,” said Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney hired to look into the matter.

In all, at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas, according to Stanton’s report.

After Stanton’s presentation, the school board voted unanimously to fire former football coach Teli White, who has been suspended since June pending the investigation’s outcome. But board members left the door open to other possible dismissals later.

“We know there were people who were in that building for quite some time …,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “I think it’s worth looking into because those people may be in other positions in authority.”

Stanton recommended that the district create an alert system when transcripts are changed digitally and a uniform policy on grade minimums that contributed to students being “unduly advanced” to the next grade. He also urged the district to require monthly reports from principals explaining any transcript changes and to regularly audit such changes.

District leaders report that, this year, they already have conducted special trainings of school personnel with access to grades and invested in new software and personnel to oversee the data.

Board members were frustrated and even angry about the results of the probes, especially after Hopson assured them in June that possible grade-changing issues were isolated to Trezevant based on the evidence at that time.

“We have to all know and understand that we have royally messed over some of these children in this district, especially when we pass them and gave them a diploma when we knew — we knew — they were not eligible to graduate. So, I hope that this report is a lesson to us all,” said Stephanie Love, whose district includes Trezevant High.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Before becoming principal of Trezevant High School in 2016, Ronnie Mackin was principal at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, both in Memphis.

Lawyers hired to investigate Mackin’s subsequent allegations — including that he was being targeted for dismissal because of alleged financial fraud at Trezevant — found no basis for that claim.

Reached by Chalkbeat later Tuesday night, Mackin did not immediately comment on the findings.

Dixon Hughes Goodman was hired to review four years worth of student transcripts from all high schools in Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district. The company scanned every transcript in the district’s database to flag schools with high instances of grade changes for further investigation. The review took months longer than originally targeted.

You can find the full report by Stanton’s group, including the analysis by Dixon Hughes Goodman, here. Other reports related to the investigations are available on the district’s website.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.