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:

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: