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:

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Indiana A-F grades

Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Because Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School became an innovation school last year, the state uses a different scale to grade it.

A-F grades for schools across Indiana were released Wednesday, but in the state’s largest district, the grades aren’t necessarily an easy way to compare schools.

An increasing share of Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, last year about 20 percent, are being measured by a different yardstick than others, creating a system where schools with virtually identical results on state tests can receive vastly different letter grades.

The letter grades aim to show how well schools are serving students by measuring both how their students score on state tests and how much their scores improve. But as Chalkbeat reported last year, new schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth. Schools in the innovation network are part of the district, but they are run by outside charter or nonprofit operators.

Of the 11 out 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state, eight were graded based on growth alone. They included a school in its first year of operation and seven innovation schools.

At the same time, traditional neighborhood and magnet schools with growth scores as good as or better than the scores at A-rated innovation schools received Bs, Cs, and even Ds.

Of the 13 innovation schools that received grades for last school year, eight received As, two got Bs, two got Cs, and one got a D. Only Herron High School was graded on the same scale as other schools. (For high schools, grades incorporate other measures including graduation rates.)

The result is a system that most parents don’t understand, said Seretha Edwards, a parent of four children at School 43, a school that received a failing grade from the state but would have gotten a B if it were measured by growth alone.

“I just think it’s kind of deceiving,” she added. “I don’t think it paints a fair picture of the schools.”

Indianapolis Public Schools deputy superintendent for academics Aleesia Johnson said the growth scores show schools are on a good trajectory.

“If you see that kids are making progress in terms of growth, that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to do” to get students to pass tests and show proficiency.

Johnson pointed out that often-changing standardized tests and different A-F grades can cause confusion for families, and those measures don’t provide a complete or timely picture for families who want to assess their schools or choose new ones. “I don’t think it gives a lot of valuable information,” she said.

Advocates have said the growth only model makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

“The concept behind the growth-only model was that we measured newer schools based off of what they are able to do for their students, rather than taking them where they received them,” said Maggie Paino, the director of accountability for the education department. “You’re taking strides to get toward proficiency.”

The situation is even more muddled than usual this year. Schools across the state received two letter grades. One was calculated under a state model that relies largely on test scores, and the other was determined under a plan the state uses to comply with federal standards.

In addition to helping parents choose schools, years of repeated low letter grades from the state can trigger intervention or takeover. But the state has deferred in decisions about intervening in low-rated schools to IPS in recent years.

Back in 2012, the state took over four chronically low-performing Indianapolis schools. Since Superintendent Lewis Ferebee took over, IPS has taken aggressive steps to overhaul struggling schools by “restarting” them as innovation schools with new managers. Other struggling schools have been closed.

School 63, which received its sixth consecutive F from the state, might have faced state intervention in the past. But the school is unlikely to face repercussions because IPS restarted the school by turning it over to an outside manager. The Haughville elementary school is now managed by Matchbook Learning.

Shaina Cavazos and Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.