internal affairs

City alters Regents grading, credit recovery policies after audit

The Department of Education is cracking down on graduation rate inflation, following an internal audit that uncovered errors and possible evidence of cheating at 60 high schools.

The audits, conducted by the department’s internal auditor, scrutinized data at 60 high schools that had posted unusual or striking results. Of the 9,582 students who graduated from the schools in 2010, the audit found that 292 did not have the exam grades or course credits required under state regulations.

At one school, Landmark High School, 35 students had graduated without earning all of the academic credits required for graduation. At another, Pablo Neruda Academy for Architecture and World Studies, 19 students had gotten credits through “credit recovery” that the school could not prove complied with state requirements. At two schools, Fort Hamilton High School and Hillcrest High School, an examination of Regents exams uncovered problems in the scoring of multiple students’ tests.

Department officials said they had asked Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon to launch inquiries at nine schools based on issues raised during the audits. (Schools where investigations were already underway were excluded from the audit.)

Students who graduated without sufficient credits won’t have their diplomas revoked, officials said. And schools won’t have their graduation rates revised to reflect the audited numbers, either, except potentially where the city found schools had purged students from their rolls without confirming that they had enrolled elsewhere.

Instead, department officials are cracking down on loopholes in city and state regulations about how to graduate students. Among the major policy changes are revisions to Regents exam scoring procedures, new limitations on “credit recovery” options for students who fail courses, and an alteration to the way schools determine whether a student has met graduation requirements.

The changes reflect a new understanding of the degree to which principals had become confused with — or, in some cases, ignorant of — graduation policies. They also reflect an unusual acknowledgment from the Department of Education that its strategies for delivering support to schools and holding them accountable are not always successful.

As the state incrementally toughened Regents exam score requirements, some schools failed to keep up the pace. Administrators at others mistakenly believed that because their schools had inadequate gym facilities, they did not have to schedule students for seven semesters of physical education classes — a phenomenon GothamSchools documented at Pace High School, which was not among the 23 schools where auditors found problems with P.E. credits.

“I don’t think we understood prior to doing this audit the range of the questions people had,” Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters during a briefing about the audit.

For years, principals have learned about graduation requirements by word of mouth and through an ad hoc series of memos and emails that could easily be lost in a sea of paperwork. Now, principals will get a single 40-page guide that compiles all city and state regulations and will be required to attend trainings about them in the coming months.

They will also no longer be able to certify students for graduation unless the city’s data system shows that all course and exam requirements have been met.

Ernest Logan, president of the union that represents principals, said in a statement that principals would appreciate the assistance and also signaled that they would like more support in navigating the technical elements of graduation requirements. In recent years, the city has handed responsibility for advising principals from local superintendents to networks that the principals hire.

“[Walcott’s] promise to tighten DOE procedures will be appreciated by school leaders throughout the system,” Logan said. “We hope that the authority of local superintendents to support and advise principals will be restored as part of the remedy.”

Giving more authority to superintendents wasn’t on the city’s agenda today as officials outlined the steps they are taking to prevent abuses going forward. Instead, they announced a slate of new policies — some seemingly more aggressive than the audit’s findings would warrant.

Changing grading practices in place since the state’s testing program launched more than a century ago, schools will no longer score Regents exams in house. By June 2013, all schools will have their Regents exams graded off-site in a logistically complex endeavor that brings high school exam grading in line with what the state already requires for elementary and middle school tests.

“We have to remove any opportunity for any kind of misconduct,” Polakow-Suransky said. “We need to make sure this is airtight the way the 3-8 system is.”

The city’s new regulations also substantially constrain the use of credit recovery, a controversial practice that allows students to make up credits for courses they failed without having to retake the entire class. Last year, about 1.7 percent of high school credits were gained through credit recovery; the audit found inappropriate use of the practice at nine of the schools, mostly for small numbers of students.

Under the new rules, students will be allowed to earn no more than three credits in the four academic subjects through credit recovery, and the makeup work must take place in the semester or summer after the course is failed. Schools will be allowed to use online credit recovery programs only if the city has pre-approved them. And the teacher who originally issued the failing grade must weigh in on the decision of whether to grant a student credit for make-up work.

A teacher at Grover Cleveland High School, which could be closed if it does not reach a 60 percent four-year graduation standard that the state has set, said the rules would heighten the challenge his school faces but added that teachers would rise to meet the expectations.

“It’s going to make it harder for kids to receive their credits and make schools like ours have a tougher time getting that 60 percent graduation rate, but a school like Grover Cleveland is going to do what it needs to do to get that 60 percent and improve our stats,” said Russ Nichtman, a science teacher.

A teachers union official said a more complete accounting of how credit recovery is used is needed.

“The city’s teachers are in favor of a complete investigation of the misuses of credit recovery, along with rigorous enforcement of regulations to make sure that students not only graduate from high school, but actually learn what they need to know to succeed in college and careers,” said Leo Casey, the union’s vice president in charge of high schools.

Polakow-Suransky said he did not anticipate that schools’ graduation rates would decline because of the new policies. He said the department was more concerned about the phaseout of the local diploma option this year. Students who entered high school in 2008 are the first to be required to earn a Regents diploma by passing five exams with a grade of 65 or higher. Previously, students could pass at least one exam with a grade between 55 and 64.

Polakow-Suransky sent a letter to principals today outlining the policy changes. That letter is below, followed by the city’s 27-page audit report.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede