grading scandal

Grade changing at some Memphis schools prompts state order for more audits

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event in Memphis. (Photo by Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat)

Improper grade-changing at two high schools in Tennessee’s largest district has prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to order follow-up audits for the next three years from Shelby County Schools.

In her sternest comments yet on the widening scandal in Memphis, McQueen called the findings of last year’s grading investigation “extremely troubling.” She relayed her order to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in a Dec. 5 letter.

The investigation, completed in November by the Memphis law firm of Butler Snow, found that 53 students at Trezevant High School received diplomas without passing the necessary classes. It also found a high rate of grade changes in several other high schools, and the district has since reported finding evidence of improper grade changes at Hamilton High School.

The district already has revised some of its protocols for entering and revising grades and continues to add safeguards to its electronic grading system — changes that Hopson and his team provided details on during a Dec. 20 conference call with McQueen.

In a letter two days later, the commissioner asked for documentation of what the district has done “to immediately address this matter to ensure the integrity of student records is maintained and employees are acting lawfully.” She specifically asked for an accounting of which job classifications have access to the grading system, the agendas for trainings to guide employees on the changes, and all written policies and procedures for entering and editing grades.

In a statement released on Friday, Hopson said Shelby County Schools has worked collaboratively with the state to improve its processes and strengthen its internal controls. “We will continue to do so and thank the State for its feedback, recommendations and support,” he said.

Shelby County Schools has been reeling since last June when Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin released a fiery resignation letter alleging a cover-up of discrepancies between student transcripts and report cards, prompting an independent investigation of grading at all Memphis high schools. A coach and secretary at Trezevant have since been fired, and the district suspended the principal of Hamilton High School in December over improper grade changes that happened under her watch. Hopson also has temporarily halted the use of “grade floors,” a practice of setting a minimum on the lowest grade a teacher can assign, which had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy.

McQueen has praised the district’s initial steps but, in her Dec. 22 letter, listed eight specific questions that the district “should be asking to better understand what happened and how it can be remedied.” She asked that Hopson provide answers to her after further investigation on:

  • Why does district leadership think the problem occurred?
  • Do employees understand their responsibilities regarding the duties of entering and editing grades but are failing to fulfill those responsibilities?
  • Are employees not aware of the proper procedures with regard to entering and editing grades?
  • Has training around the policies and procedures of entering and editing grades been clear and provided as often as necessary?
  • Does district leadership think policies and procedures need to be developed or revised to address proper entering and editing of grades?
  • Was district leadership already aware of the problem and been working on it?
  • Does the district’s electronic grading system maintain an audit log of changes, and if so, does someone have the job of checking it regularly to minimize the risk of improper grade changes?
  • What is the district’s plan to review, on a case by case basis, the transcripts of students, still enrolled, whose grades were improperly changed, to ensure students are negatively impacted as little as possible by this issue?

State spokeswoman Sara Gast said Thursday that the Department of Education’s role now is to ensure that “appropriate actions are taken to minimize the risks of this happening again.” She said state and district leaders are having ongoing discussions, and that the scope of the follow-up audits is yet to be determined. She also called the situation in Shelby County Schools a first for the state.

“Very occasionally, districts will let us know they have found potential issues with grade discrepancies, but just like in this case, they will self-report to us, complete a full investigation, consult with us as needed, and take steps to ensure that it does not happen again,” Gast said. “This is the first time we have heard of a situation where many of the discrepancies seemed to be tied to student athletes’ grades and where the scope of the overall issue may be larger.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement issued Jan. 5 from Superintendent Hopson.

Clarification: Jan. 5, 2018: The headline on a previous version of this story said Tennessee has ordered a three-year audit of Memphis schools. State officials say the exact nature of how multiple audits will occur over the next three years has not been determined, and the headline has been changed to reflect that.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: