grading scandal

Hopson tightens who can revise student transcripts in response to grade changing in Memphis

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is in talks with state officials about the future of American Way Middle, a struggling Memphis school that the state has identified for conversion to a charter school under Shelby County Schools or takeover by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Shelby County Schools has slashed the number of people who have the ability to alter student grades, in one of several responses to a grade-changing scandal that is rocking the district.

Principals and assistant principals, school counselors, secretaries, and some people who work in the district’s central office can no longer edit student grades without designation from a principal, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told state education officials in a Jan. 11 letter outlining his response to the unfolding controversy of improper grade-changing at some Memphis high schools.

All of those people had been able to edit student report cards and transcripts. Since the end of January, Hopson said, only teachers, a records secretary, and one other designee of the principal would have that right at the school level.

This means the school records secretary who was fired after changing grades at Trezevant High School, the scandal’s epicenter, would not have been barred from revising grades under the new rules. Hopson’s letter also does not specify how many of the grade changes detected during an external audit of district high schools’ records were made by people who have lost access.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had demanded to know who had access to the district’s grading system, called PowerSchool, in a Dec. 22 letter to Hopson. She also asked for the district’s written policies for entering and editing grades, for details about how employees had been trained on those policies, and for a host of other explanations about how the district would prevent inappropriate grade changes from happening in the future.

Hopson’s letter answered those questions and detailed multiple changes that he said were underway to prevent improper grade changes. In addition to tightening access, he said, school leaders and coaches had undergone training about grading procedures the week of Jan. 14, and the district was planning similar training for teachers as well as developing a plan to renew the training annually.

But even as Hopson explained how the district was shoring up its procedures, he pointed out that the changes might not have prevented what happened at Trezevant.

The secretary there who made the grade changes had undergone training about grading policies, Hopson told McQueen. “The employees who have been terminated were not following established protocols and procedures and clearly conspired to intentionally falsify transcripts,” he wrote in the letter, which Chalkbeat obtained.

He also suggested that ensuring that all grading changes are appropriate could remain difficult for Shelby County Schools given the fact that many students change schools throughout the year, though he didn’t elaborate on how high student mobility specifically makes tracking grades difficult.

“Such discontinuity can make grading a challenge as students move from school to school at inopportune times,” Hopson wrote. “We sometimes have cases which require thoughtful deliberation to resolve [grading issues] in a manner which appropriately addresses student needs. While we will be more concerted in our efforts to have teams of Shelby County Schools educators address such issues, as opposed to staff making unilateral decisions, I trust that you and your staff will continue to be a resource for us should we have questions about specific issues.”

Hopson’s letter does not address one sweeping clarification to the district’s grading policies: temporarily halting the use of “grade floors,” a practice of setting a minimum on the lowest grade a teacher can assign. The practice had been a gray area in the district’s rules and had been used to justify some grade changes at another school, Hamilton High, where inappropriate changes were also detected.

State education officials said the district’s initial steps to respond to the scandal are positive but that the department would continue to monitor closely. In the Dec. 22 letter, McQueen ordered additional audits for the next three years from Shelby County Schools.

“It is encouraging to see the responses from the district and the new procedures and protocols they are putting in place,” said Sara Gast, a Department of Education spokesperson. “We will continue conversations with them as they continue their review and implement these new steps to ensure that all the right safeguards are in place to prevent these situations from happening again.”

You can view Hopson’s Jan. 11 letter in full below:

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.