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.

 

focusing in

Black student excellence: Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Mary Getachew, 15, right, laughs with her peer mentor Sabrin Mohamed,18, left, at Denver's North High School in 2016.

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of black and African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Denver Public Schools’ data show big disparities in how black students are served by the district. While 13 percent of the approximately 93,000 students are black,

  • 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions last year were given to black students,
  • 16.5 percent of students identified as having a disability were black,
  • Just 10 percent of students enrolled in rigorous high school courses were black.

The focus on black students comes after more than a year of relentless and high-profile advocacy from black parents and activists, and 2½ years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated in Denver Public Schools.

Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it was based on interviews with black educators conducted by former school board member Sharon Bailey, who has studied racial dynamics in Denver. It found that black educators feel isolated and mistreated by the district, and perceive that black students are more harshly disciplined in part because the young white women who make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce are afraid of them.

The report led to a task force, which presented the district with 11 recommendations. Among them: offering signing bonuses to help attract more black teachers, making student discipline data count toward school ratings, and requiring each school to create a plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools.”

Nearly two years later, none of that has happened. And much of what the district has done has been voluntary for teachers and schools. Meanwhile, the data keeps mounting.

Last year, 67 percent of black students graduated on time, meaning within four years of starting high school, compared with 78 percent of white students. On state math tests, 17 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored on grade level, compared with 65 percent of white students. The literacy gap was similar.

Avery Williams, a senior at George Washington High School, told the school board at a work session in December that “there’s an awkwardness around being black” in Denver schools.

“Teachers, specifically white teachers, don’t know how to act around me,” Williams said. Many of her classmates, she said, “do not know how to have respectful conversations because they’re afraid of being offensive or because they’re not educated in the right terminology.”

Michael Filmore, a junior at East High School, spoke about being one of only a few black students in his more rigorous classes, an experience Williams shares. After taking remedial classes his freshman year at East, Filmore said he decided to take all honors classes as a sophomore. He also took the public bus to school and was often late for first period.

“I would walk in the classroom and I would feel like I didn’t belong there,” Filmore told the board. “I felt uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be in these classes. I was pressured. I eventually dropped the class. My junior year, I felt that I would never let myself down again.”

At that December session, Bacon expressed a desire to more explicitly address issues affecting black students. The district has put that kind of focus on students learning English as a second language, many of whom are Hispanic, after a federal judge found the district was violating their rights. Under that order, the district has developed specific methods for teaching English language learners. It requires all new teachers to get certified to teach them.

Bacon and others questioned why that hasn’t happened for black students, as well.

“It’s not because there’s a lack of effort, will, or love,” Bacon said in an interview. “I think it’s because we’re not organized properly and we don’t have an internal stake in the ground around expectations, outcomes, and accountability measures. People want to see DPS is doing that.”

Her fellow board members agreed. On Thursday, they took turns thanking her for bringing forth the resolution, which directs the district to do several things:

  • Require all schools, including district-run and charter schools, to review data about student academic performance, discipline, and referrals for special education to understand how each school’s black students are doing “on an individual level”
  • Require all schools to set goals for supporting black students that prioritize giving them “access to grade-level and more rigorous coursework”
  • Require school leaders to articulate how they will monitor progress toward their goals
  • Train all district staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education
  • Conduct an “equity audit” to understand what the district is doing well and what it is not to figure out how it “can better prioritize the success of our black students”

It will now be up to new Superintendent Susana Cordova, who made equity a cornerstone of her bid for the district’s top job, to carry out the directive. The resolution gives her until May 31 to come up with a plan that would go into effect by the start of the next school year.

“We know that we have a painful and inequitable history of outcomes for our students,” Cordova said. “But facing this with courage, facing this in community, facing this with our stakeholders, our parents, our family members, our community members, and our students holding us accountable, I believe deeply in the ability of people to come together to solve these problems.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.