Widening investigation

Hopson halts ‘grade floors’ as second Memphis high school implicated in grade-changing probe

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has led Tennessee's largest school district since 2013 and has been challenged in 2017 by allegations of grade tampering in some Shelby County schools.

A widening investigation into grade-changing at Memphis high schools has led to the suspension of one principal and a moratorium on a controversial grading practice across Shelby County Schools.

Hamilton High School Principal Monekea Smith was suspended without pay after investigators found that improper grade changes happened under her watch, a district spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson also issued a moratorium on the use of “grade floors” after determining that the practice was being abused to justify unwarranted grade changes at Hamilton.

“Effective immediately, we are instituting a moratorium on the use of grade floors,” Hopson wrote Tuesday in an email to teachers. “Grade floors were meant to ensure failing grades did not go below a certain level, so our students would have a better chance of improvement. It was never intended to allow the changing of grades from failing to passing, and anyone found guilty of doing so will face immediate disciplinary action.”

The developments reflect the widening scope of an investigation into allegations of falsified grades at Memphis high schools. The examination began last year at Trezevant High School when its former principal noticed discrepancies between transcripts and report cards. A coach and a secretary have been dismissed there after investigators found evidence of wrongdoing, but the suspension of Hamilton’s principal is the first to affect other schools.

A grade floor is the lowest grade a teacher can assign a student during a single period and had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy. Independent investigators hired to look into Trezevant recommended that Shelby County Schools create uniform rules on the matter.

Hopson’s directive to ban grade floors — for now — means that teachers and administrators are not allowed to give a higher grade than what a failing student earned. He plans to propose a new policy in January based on feedback from educators.

Proponents of grade floors had called them a useful tool to motivate students who lag far behind to bring up their grades — for instance, bumping a student performing at 20 percent up to a 60 percent on a scale that requires at least a 70 percent to pass.

But the practice had gotten out of hand at Hamilton, according to Hopson.

Hamilton had not been mentioned in almost 300 pages of reports from investigators who found that 10 high schools had high rates of grade changes.

However, Hamilton was cited in a draft report from Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney who led one investigation, according to a high-level source familiar with the report. Stanton’s team found grading changes at Hamilton and recommended further investigation, but the recommendation never made it into the final report.

District officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why the recommendation was omitted from the final report. They also declined to elaborate on whether the changes at Hamilton are the result of the external investigation or an internal review.

Former Hamilton teacher Michael Pleasants was interviewed by Stanton’s team and reported that some of his students’ grades had been improperly changed during his two-year tenure. Pleasants told Chalkbeat that the district should look even wider than the schools with high instances of grade changes, citing a “pervasive” culture of pressuring teachers to pass students who aren’t ready.

“Don’t try to scapegoat anybody over this. It isn’t just one person,” he said. “It shouldn’t be presented as just a few bad apples but most people do their jobs right.”

Face time

On the hot seat: McQueen to explain latest testing blunders to angry Tennessee lawmakers

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is under fire for her oversight of the state's standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its rollout in 2016.

Facing mounting pressure over testing problems that have plagued Tennessee for three years, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen goes before lawmakers Wednesday to explain what went wrong this time — and what the state is doing about it.

McQueen is scheduled to appear at noon before a joint legislative hearing of several committees, and she’s expected to recount some of the same things she shared in an email Tuesday evening with district superintendents.

The former classroom teacher and university dean said she was “completely devastated” Tuesday morning when technical problems derailed online testing for a second state day.

She announced a three-day extension of this spring’s online testing window to May 9 to provide schools with more flexibility because of the problems.

She reported that, despite the snafus, more than 120,000 tests were completed on Monday and Tuesday.

And she was contrite. “I want to personally apologize to each of you and to your many staff, teachers, and students who have been handling these issues with patience and a positive attitude. We are very grateful,” she wrote.

But the reception on Capitol Hill in Nashville is not expected to be friendly, even as McQueen has numerous fans there for sticking by major reforms approved by the legislature in 2010 as part of Tennessee’s First to the Top education overhaul.

This week, lawmakers have gotten an earful from educators and parents angry that TNReady wasted two school days for older students who were supposed to take the standardized test online. Only last fall, McQueen had assured lawmakers she’d put an end to TNReady problems when scoring errors emerged in the second year of testing.

The anger reached a boiling point on Tuesday, with House Democrats calling for McQueen to step down and Republicans discussing last-minute legislation that would clip TNReady’s wings.

“We’re fed up,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus. “Commissioner McQueen had one thing she had to do this year, and she failed. We need another commissioner.”

But lawmakers can’t fire McQueen. Only Gov. Bill Haslam can do that, and he’s the one who hired her in late 2014. The Republican governor also has championed his education commissioner through good and bad — including the failed rollout of online testing in 2016 and Tennessee’s big gains on national tests from 2011 to 2015.

Asked about the legislative saber-rattling, a Haslam spokeswoman said the governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen” and called for patience while the state and Questar investigate a “deliberate attack” by hackers on the testing company’s data system — the alleged source of Tuesday’s testing problems.

"The governor has complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen."Jennifer Donnals, spokeswoman

“This was an outside attack on the testing system, and the system worked as designed to protect private student information,” the spokeswoman, Jennifer Donnals, said in a statement. “Eliminating testing as a response would only serve to accomplish the very disruption the hackers intended. The governor understands and shares the frustration of teachers, students and parents and appreciates their patience while this attack is being investigated.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers barreling toward the finish line of this year’s legislative session huddled to seek legislative remedies to this week’s testing failures via a bill sponsored by Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown. One amendment would require the state to administer only paper-and-pencil tests in future years. A second would require the state Department of Education to “hold harmless” students, teachers, schools, and districts for the results of this year’s TNReady tests, which are incorporated into teacher evaluations and students’ final grades and determine which low-performing schools will face intervention.

TNReady shockwaves

Memphis school board discusses dropping TNReady scores from teacher decisions after testing failures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board chairwoman Shante Avant.

School board members in Memphis on Tuesday evening expressed their outrage after a second day of state testing failures, with calls ranging from creating a local version of the high-stakes exam to not using TNReady scores in the district’s own evaluations of its teachers.

“If the state can’t be of assistance to us in that process,” of teacher evaluations, board chairwoman Shante Avant said, “I don’t think they need to be a part of the process.”

Board member Teresa Jones said Shelby County Schools ought to look to alternative measures to evaluate teachers.

“I don’t think we can make human capital decisions and have evaluations until we have a test that is actually functioning at a level that we can trust,” Jones said.

The board did not vote on changing teacher evaluations. The angry declarations came after two days of glitches in state testing in Tennessee — first with login problems and then what the state called a “deliberate attack” on its testing vendor’s data center. This week’s testing failures is the latest in the chain of a tumultuous multiyear rollout of the state’s new online test.

TNReady scores are factored into teacher evaluations to show student growth and mastery. Shelby County Schools uses those teacher evaluation scores to determine pay raises and school assignments, among other uses. The test scores are also the basis for state intervention strategies for low-performing schools, but school board members do not have control over that.

Though the state Department of Education assured district leaders student information was not compromised, board members were not convinced.

“It seems to me that not only process has been compromised, but the test scores have been compromised as well,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “I don’t know how any reasonable person could think this is a way to do high-stakes testing.”

And one board member even said the district should create its own test to show student growth and achievement instead of relying on the state.

“We owe it to our teachers, to our parents, to our students to say ‘no more’ until the state of Tennessee can give us a test that we can trust and that we know will follow through from the beginning to the end,” said Stephanie Love. “I think it’s time for us to come up with our own test to know where our children are, where they need to go and a plan to get them where they need to be so they can graduate and be successful.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the disruption of state testing impacts students and how they approach the test, which could ultimately lower their scores. All high school students are testing online this year, and districts had the option of including middle school students in the switch from paper this year. High school principals in Shelby County Schools have discretion over when they will schedule exams during the state’s testing window.

“Test results are good to see benchmarks where kids are, but we should have multiple measures to determine how a school is doing and what kids are learning,” he told board members. “Putting all your eggs in one basket and that basket breaks, it just creates a lot of concern.”

Earlier in the day, some state legislators echoed board members’ concerns by calling for the immediate resignation of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Another said he planned to file a bill scrapping the online version of the test and making sure the test results aren’t used in Tennessee’s accountability system for teachers and schools.