Grade changing

Missing documents bring early end to investigation into improper grade changes in Memphis schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file

The firm hired to investigate grade changing in Memphis schools gave up after determining that the paperwork needed to prove misconduct did not exist in just about every case.

The investigation’s premature termination represents the end, according to the Shelby County Schools, of two years of looking into practices of promoting or graduating students who did not meet course requirements.

Of the 668 “high-risk” grade changes the firm found across seven schools, staff only provided 15 grade change forms that are required by the district whenever final grades are changed.

“That does not indicate 650-some-odd fraudulent grade changes. That’s not the conclusion we’re reaching,” said Jeremy Gilbert, the senior manager at Dixon Hughes Goodman, the accounting firm that handled the investigation.

But, he said the low number of forms that were recovered “has led us to conclude that continuing with the investigation… would not benefit Shelby County Schools in any way.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he was shocked and disappointed at the conclusion, but said he would rather focus on preventing future omissions than continuing to spend money to discern past instances.

“Look, I can keep taking your money or I can give you some good advice,” Hopson said of his conversation with Gilbert explaining why they wanted to end the investigation early.

Gilbert gave several reasons Shelby County Schools does not have the forms: Grade change forms required by district policy are stored in students’ files that go with them when they graduate, not all schools use them, and some files were “destroyed” when school counselors or administrators left schools, according to investigators.

“Strangely, in my opinion, when those counselors moved on from that school, the files were destroyed,” Gilbert said.

The firm recommended Shelby County Schools make grade change forms — what Gilbert called “the most reliable source” of legitimizing changes — electronic so they will exist after the student graduates. Investigators also recommended that only one person per school should be authorized to change grades.

In response, the district has hired four people to review grade changes, and is working to electronically convert the form while also training principals on how and why grades should be changed. There is also a draft of a new policy for the school board to review that includes the firm’s recommendations. (Scroll down to the bottom of this story to read the draft policy.)

Some of the district’s safeguards have already proven helpful. Since the investigation was commissioned, Hopson restricted those allowed to change a student’s grade to only teachers, a records secretary, and one other designee of the principal. A new required monthly report from principals of any grade changes led the district to discover that a student had changed her own grades and those of other students at a computer left unattended, Gilbert said.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Before becoming principal of Trezevant High School in 2016, Ronnie Mackin was principal at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, both in Memphis.

The firm was hired to do a deeper probe of some high schools over a nearly three-year period after evidence surfaced of a pervasive culture of improper grade changing at Trezevant High School in 2016. Because of grade changing there, 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas, said Butler Snow, the law firm that investigated the school last year. Allegations of improper grade changing brought to the district by former Trezevant principal Ronnie Mackin led the district to fire the school’s records secretary and football coach.

The scope of the deeper investigation was originally seven high schools, but the firm added four others to examine. Neither the firm nor the district immediately disclosed the names of the schools. Previously the district said the schools were: Kirby High, Raleigh-Egypt High, Bolton High, Westwood High, White Station High, Trezevant High, and Memphis Virtual School. Gilbert said the firm intentionally did not examine Trezevant because of the previous investigation.

But before investigators could ask for materials from all of the schools, Gilbert said they had already determined they wouldn’t have enough information to form any meaningful conclusions about the legitimacy of any grade changes.

“This grade change form is absolutely critical,” he told school board members. “Grade forms need to exist. They need to be filled out. They need to be retained for a definite period.”

The firm originally found 2,344 grades were changed from failing to passing at the seven schools, and recommended further investigation. The firm narrowed its analysis to look at 668 of them. Gilbert said those were the most at risk of being fraudulent because the grade was changed long after the semester ended or represented a big jump, such as from a “D” to an “A.”

No employees are expected to be disciplined for not using the grade change forms because there was a lot of confusion among staff on how to use them, district officials said. One teacher the firm interviewed said she thought the forms were abolished after the former Memphis City Schools folded into Shelby County Schools in 2013.

More allegations of improper grade changing surfaced while the firm investigated. The principal at another iZone school, Hamilton High, was demoted after someone used her online credentials to change student grades. And at least five educators have accused Kingsbury High School Principal Terry Ross of pressuring them to promote or graduate students who were failing. Former Kingsbury teacher Alesia Harris took her concerns to the school board in June. Ross was later suspended for allegations of harassing employees; that investigation is still ongoing.

So far, the investigation into grade changes has cost the district $159,000. The district expects at least one more invoice before closing out its contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, said Leon Pattman, the district’s chief of internal audit.

School board members, briefed on the findings Tuesday, agreed that the firm should stop investigating and that the district should act on the findings.

“I agree that it’s probably time for us to move forward and that we’re trying to put a stake in the ground and say this is what we need to do moving forward for our kids, so it’s not just an excess of dollars being spent,” said Shante Avant, the board’s chairwoman.

Below is the draft policy. Changes from the previous policy are in red.

 

Data dive

Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing schools. But because too few of its students took the state exams — and those who did weren’t enrolled long enough — there is no clear picture of how well the school is educating them.

The virtual charter school, which opened in 2017, more than doubled in size to 6,232 students since last fall, in part because state data shows more than 1,700 students transferred from its troubled sister school, Indiana Virtual School.

But despite Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s rapid growth, the school is bypassing a key accountability measure that Indiana thinks is important for transparency: A-F grades, which were approved by the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Education department officials said the school did not get a grade, despite its high enrollment last year, because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough to have one calculated. State grades are based primarily on student test scores, and virtual schools are known to struggle to get their remote students to sit for exams.

State test participation rate data shows IVPA tested about 19 percent of its 346 10th-graders in 2018 — about 65 students. To use test scores to calculate a school grade, the state requires that at least 40 test-takers must have attended the school for at least 162 days, a majority of the school year. But state officials said that while the school enrolled 48 10th-graders who met the attendance threshold during the testing period, only three of those students took the exams.

Federal requirements say schools must test at least 95 percent of students, and school grades can be affected if a school falls below that percentage. But there is currently no consequence for a school that doesn’t test enough students to get a letter grade.

The students who were tested at IVPA posted poor results: 5.7 percent passed both state English and math exams.

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School and IVPA did not respond to requests for comment on A-F grades or testing participation, but the schools’ superintendent Percy Clark said in an emailed statement that students from varying education backgrounds select IVPA, and that the school was designed to serve students who are far behind their peers academically.

“Our students CHOOSE to come to Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy from many different backgrounds, and we accept everyone regardless of where they are on their academic journey,” Clark said.

Virtual charter school critics say IVPA’s lack of a letter grade is an example of how the schools are able to avoid scrutiny.

“It’s absolutely indefensible,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an organization that advocates for charter schools but has been a vocal critic of virtual charter schools. “When it comes to charter schools, the grand bargain is that the charter school gets increased autonomy, and in exchange, there is greater accountability. It’s hard to see where the accountability is for virtual schools right now.”

In contrast to IVPA, other large virtual schools in the state tested at least 90 percent of their students, and nearly every traditional school in Indiana met the federal threshold for testing students.

Indiana Virtual School, the subject of a Chalkbeat investigation that revealed questionable educational and spending practices, tested about two-thirds of its students in 2018. Students at the school, which received its third F grade from the state this week, did marginally better than at IVPA, but performed far below state averages: 18.6 percent of elementary and middle school students passed both tests, and 4.4 percent of high-schoolers did. State law says schools are up for state board of education intervention when they reach four consecutive F grades.

Brown, who used to work in the Indianapolis mayor’s office overseeing charter schools, said this is where charter school authorizers — the entities charged with monitoring the schools’ operations, finances, and academics — need to be involved. Daleville Public Schools, a small rural district near Muncie, oversees IVS and IVPA. State education leaders have previously questioned whether school districts have the capacity and expertise to oversee statewide charter schools. District leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“If I was still an authorizer and one of our schools had less than a 20 percent rate of their students taking the ISTEP, we would be mortified, and we would be holding that school accountable with very clear measures,” Brown said. “In light of the tens of millions of dollars used to fund this school, there has to be at least a basic level of accountability, and right now, it’s hard to account for how that money is being spent because we just don’t know.”

With such high enrollment numbers, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy could together bring in upward of $35 million from the state for this school year, according to funding estimates from the Legislative Services Agency.

At the state’s other full-time virtual charter schools — including those billed as alternative schools like IVPA — state grades are rising as enrollment grows. Indiana Connections Academy is up to a D this year from an F, and Insight School of Indiana is up to a C from an F. For grades under Indiana’s federal plan, the schools received an F and D, respectively.

Indiana Connections Career Academy enrolled about 70 students last year and received no grade, but education department officials say that is because it had too few students to calculate one, despite testing more than 95 percent of them. It’s not uncommon for small schools — especially high schools that have just one tested grade — to not get a grade. This year, the school’s enrollment is up to about 300 students.

Virtual charter school accountability has become a hot issue in Indiana. Earlier this year, the state board of education convened a committee to study virtual charter schools, which have grown rapidly here in recent years. And last month, the committee released a series of recommendations, including slowing growth of new virtual charter schools to 15 percent per year — after a school hits 250 students — for their first four years.

Getting students who are located remotely to sit for state exams is a challenge for virtual schools. Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, said dogged work contacting and keeping up with students has made some of the difference for her school, both in students taking tests and improving on them.

“Our teachers are relentless in trying to engage with kids,” she said. “We are by no means where we want to be. We still have a lot of work to do. But 8-point growth is something that we’re celebrating today.”

Melissa Brown said the school is also offering students who come in behind grade level more ways to make up their classes and incentives for them to stay at the school. For example, she said the school has a lot of over-age eighth-graders who should be in high school. Instead of just drilling their eighth-grade classes, they also have a chance to try out high school-level work — a taste of what’s to come, Brown said. So far, it’s working.

“We’re just trying to be really creative about helping kids progress,” she said.

At Insight, school director Elizabeth Lamey said she’s excited by how the high school has been able to help students show more growth on state tests. Currently, the school, which opened in 2016, is getting grades calculated only on how much students improve on state tests from one year to the next, not their proficiency or other measures such as graduation rate.

Lamey said improving the school’s curriculum and focusing on remediation and teacher training contributed to their progress and sets them up to continue that work.

“We hope to see even more growth this year,” Lamey said. “We know that it’s a rougher road, the older students get, to remediate. It takes more time, and we are slow and steady — we keep moving forward.”

Accountability issues will continue to be important for virtual charter schools as their enrollments grow.

Indiana’s five full-time virtual charter schools enroll about 13,000 students. Although it appears that total virtual charter school enrollment in Indiana has declined since 2017-18, those figures include the closing of low-performing Hoosier Virtual Academy. The school enrolled 1,170 students when it closed in June, which was far lower than the 3,342 it was recorded as having at the beginning of that school year.

Comparing enrollment totals between fall of 2017 and fall of 2018, every virtual charter school currently open in the state saw enrollment rise, with the exception of Indiana Virtual School. Indiana Connections Academy and its sister school, Indiana Connections Career Academy, gained nearly 400 students between them. Insight is also up 45 students.

Virtual charter schools tend to have volatile enrollment patterns in part because of how easily students can enroll and withdraw — their families don’t have to move, and they can live anywhere in the state. Students moving between schools is not unique to virtual schools, but those schools do tend to see higher instances of mobility than traditional schools.

That means it can be hard to determine just how much virtual school enrollment has changed from one year to the next — enrollment numbers reported in the fall might fluctuate wildly through the rest of year.

Are Children Learning

These are the 7 schools IPS leaders are most worried about

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 48 is one of the campuses identified for a quality review.

Seven schools will be getting a closer look, and possible intervention, after Indianapolis Public Schools administration identified them as some of the lowest-performing schools in the district.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration announced this week the schools that were chosen for school quality reviews based on performance on the state ISTEP exam. This is the second year the district has initiated its own assessment of struggling schools, which will include district visits to the schools, and interviews with leaders, staff, and families.

The reviews are designed to help schools improve, district officials said. But campuses could also face the possibility of being restarted as innovation schools. If that happens, they would likely be taken over by outside charter or nonprofit operators, who would overhaul the schools with largely new staff. Schools can also be selected for restart based on repeated failing grades from the state.

One of the seven schools identified by the district last year was ultimately restarted as an innovation school. The other schools received different kinds of help such as working with schools to help teachers collaborate better, officials said.

“This is a clear example of our commitment to helping drive improvement at these schools where we see there’s a lack of improvement,” Ferebee said.

One sign that less drastic efforts helped is that only one campus, School 48, appeared on the list for the second year in a row.

“As a matter of fact, a few of the schools from last year had some of the highest growth that we saw in the district,” said Andrew Strope, the district’s performance and continuous improvement officer.

One wrinkle for the district is that three of the seven schools identified are already innovation schools. That raised concerns for board member Venita Moore.

“I was surprised to see these … innovation schools on the list,” Moore said. “But I think it does provide our community insight that we take seriously the quality of the education that our children are receiving.”

When innovation schools are created, the operators have contracts with Indianapolis Public Schools. Those agreements typically stipulate that the contracts can be ended if the schools receive D or F grades from the state for three or more consecutive years.

Ferebee cautioned, however, that restarting them again would create more upheaval. “Often times that creates instability that is not always helpful,” he said. “The goal, I just want to continue to reiterate, is to ensure we can help these schools improve their performance.”

These are the seven schools identified as having test scores in the bottom quarter and growth scores in the bottom half for the district.

  • Stephen Foster School 67
  • Eleanor Skillen School 34
  • Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School 15
  • Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder Diggs 42
  • Kindezi Academy at Joyce Kilmer 69
  • James Russell Lowell School 51
  • Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48