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.

 

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.