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.