Grade changing

Coach fired amid Memphis grading scandal will not be reinstated, board says

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat
The Shelby County Schools board reaffirmed its decision to fire Teli White, a former football coach at Trezevant High School.

The lawyer for the coach at the epicenter of a grade inflation scandal told the Shelby County Schools board Wednesday his client is a scapegoat for a problem that goes far beyond one coach and one school. Still, the board reaffirmed its December vote to fire Teli White, the former Trezevant High School football coach.

White’s lawyer, Darrell O’Neal, said his client would appeal to chancery court.

White was suspended in 2016, following an internal review; he was fired in December 2017, after a law firm’s investigation uncovered additional evidence of his involvement. The veteran coach has denied the accusations against him and is appealing his termination.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat
Teli White’s lawyer, Darrell O’Neal, speaks to board members defending the former Trezevant High School football coach.

“If you have a systematic pattern of changing grades and the only people that are being disciplined is a football coach and a secretary, there’s something wrong,” O’Neal said.

He also argued that his client’s suspension was punishment enough for the alleged conduct.

“There is no policy that states you can discipline a teacher twice for the same conduct,” he said. “Mr. White has already been disciplined and should be reinstated.”

The school board voted 7-1 to deny White’s appeal. Board member Mike Kernell voted in White’s favor, and Scott McCormick did not attend the meeting.

The results of an independent investigation into grade changes across seven Memphis high schools are expected in a few weeks. The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman in Memphis is authoring the report.

White has denied requesting changes for football players whose grades had been “drastically and unjustifiably inflated,” according to a district-commissioned report by law firm Butler Snow, which released its findings in December. But evidence on White’s computer suggested otherwise, according to the report, which states:

Coach White had saved to his desktop 10 transcripts of football players from 2012-2015. Three of the transcripts had been altered and given grades inconsistent with the grades on their report cards, and these inconsistencies resulted in higher overall GPAs for the players.

Christopher Campbell, an attorney for the school district, said that whether or not other faculty members are implicated in the scandal is irrelevant so far as White’s case is concerned.

“They want you to consider a wide or broad scale investigation. But that’s not why we’re here, ladies and gentlemen,” Campbell told the board. “We’re here to deal with Teli White.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat
Audience members react to deliberations at an appeal hearing for former Trezevant High School coach Teli White on Wednesday.

White’s players were not the only ones at Trezevant whose grades were changed without proper documentation. In total, 57 non-athlete students’ grades were found to have been changed without merit, Butler Snow reported. As a result, 53 students received diplomas without passing the necessary classes.

Trezevant High School is part of the district’s heralded school improvement program known as the Innovation Zone, or iZone.

Since the scandal surfaced, Shelby County Schools has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript to teachers, a records secretary, and one other person specified by the principal. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is also requiring a monthly report from principals, detailing any changes to grades. Such changes can be legitimate if a student completes a process known as course recovery or makeup assignments.

White is one of at least three employees in Tennessee’s largest district to face termination or demotion following investigations into boosting grades. Shirley Quinn, the records secretary at Trezevant, was fired in October 2016 after admitting to changing grades improperly. And Monekea Smith, who was principal at Hamilton High School, was demoted in January after district officials discovered her login credentials were used to change grades. Students protested that decision. A district spokeswoman said she had no additional information on the status of Smith’s case.

The Tennessee Department of Education in January ordered Shelby County Schools to undergo follow-up audits for the next three years.

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: