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.

 

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: