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.

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.