Digging in

We read all 279 pages of reports about grade changes in Memphis. Here are five big takeaways.

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
At least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant High School shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade alterations, according to a report.

Reports detailing how grades were falsified at Trezevant High School have called into question whether grade changes happening at other Memphis high schools are legitimate.

Shelby County Schools released the results last week of a six-month investigation into how grades are handled at all 41 high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. The probe launched after a new Trezevant principal reported inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts at his school in September 2016.

We read all 279 pages of the reports by legal and accounting firms hired to look into the matter. Here are five takeaways:

1. Some of the allegations have merit.

Complaints that some grades had been changed on transcripts at Trezevant High ring true, according to the report, and there’s cause for suspicion at some other high schools, too.

A team of investigators led by former U.S. attorney Ed Stanton said at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade changes.

But Trezevant might not be alone. A separate report by a North Carolina accounting firm found a high rate of grade changes at six other high schools within Shelby County Schools. The average number of grade changes across all high schools was 53, but Trezevant had 461 and Kirby logged 582 between 2012 and 2016. A deeper probe into those schools has been ordered.

2. District leaders weren’t caught totally off guard

While expressing surprise at the findings, district administrators began building in safeguards to prevent illicit grade changes months before Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin reported finding discrepancies. Under a 2016 change, Shelby County Schools began requiring all teachers to use the same electronic grading database known as SMS.

“The District implemented this policy in an effort to effectuate a uniform and consistent method for grade entry which was designed to ensure truthful grading data,” the report said. “As an additional safeguard, SCS also required school principals to implement grading protocols aimed at ensuring the accuracy of the grades that teachers entered into SMS.”

Additionally, Mackin told investigators that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin “informed him that there was an ‘adult culture problem’ and ‘a financial mess’ that needed to be ‘cleaned up’ at Trezevant.”

And this week, Hopson said rumors of grade-changing have been floating around for years.

“As a Memphian, who went to school here, far back as high school, I would always hear rumors of people changing people’s grades,” he told reporters. “That’s persisted for a long period of time.”

3. Grade floors and grade tampering aren’t the same thing.

Around the same time that Mackin turned over evidence of falsified grades, he implemented a “grade floor” policy in which Trezevant students don’t receive grades below a certain threshold.

So if a student was failing a class, Mackin discouraged teachers from giving that student a grade below 60 percent because “there is a mathematical impossibility of scoring high enough to make up the grade in the future,” he wrote in an email to then-supervisor Tonye Smith-McBride. Such low grades would contribute to a lack of student motivation and behavior issues, he argued.

Mackin told investigators that he was referring to future grades, but the timing of his directive appeared to contribute to confusion about grading policies at Trezevant, making some teachers think that their principal was instructing them to retroactively change failing grades to passing ones.

Trezevant isn’t alone in having grade floors. Hopson said other schools have similar practices and that he would like a uniform policy on the issue. Stanton’s report makes that recommendation.

4. Investigators found no evidence to support other complaints that were not about academics.

Mackin’s six-page resignation letter on June 1 accused Shelby County Schools of a cover-up and said that he was being painted as a scapegoat for questionable finances at Trezevant.

“Our investigation has determined that no cover up occurred,” the report read, adding that investigators found no evidence that Mackin was “wrongfully targeted” either as the district looked into finances.

In fact, the report noted that, in several public statements, district leaders hailed Mackin for unearthing suspicious activity on grades. As for a cover-up, Hopson alerted the State Department of Education in a timely matter that the district was conducting an internal review into Mackin’s concerns.

Investigators also found no evidence to support Mackin’s allegations that Trezevant’s football coach mis-reported the school’s enrollment to state athletic officials and that his supervisor had sexually harassed him.

5. There’s still lots of questions to be answered.

The accounting firm hired to review transcript changes at Memphis high schools found that 10 schools had more than 200 instances from 2012 to 2016. However, the review team could not determine if any were fraudulent and concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Investigators also were hampered from getting to the truth at Trezevant without the subpoena power that compels witnesses to speak up.

For example, investigators could not locate several people that Mackin claimed had evidence that would incriminate football coach Teli White, who has since been fired, regarding allegations that he paid student-athletes. They also could not search White’s email or bank accounts to look into allegations of financial fraud.

Hopson told reporters this week that his administration is considering turning over a list of former school administrators to Shelby County’s district attorney, who would have subpoena power in the matter. The superintendent, who is an attorney, said the findings of the first external review may merit a criminal investigation.

The full report by Butler Snow & Dixon Hughes Goodman is available here.

The full Ogletree Deakins report is available here.

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.