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.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these our valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.