Grade changing

Did Memphis school leaders just get a pass in the $159,000 grade-tampering probe?

After evidence surfaced of improper grade changing at a Memphis school, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson vowed that the district would put policies in place to prevent such “criminal” actions from happening again, and said that those who violated existing policies would be fired.

But then Dixon Hughes Goodman, the accounting firm hired to dig deeper into possible grade tampering elsewhere in the district, gave up this week — determining that the grade-change forms needed to prove misconduct were missing in just about every case. (All but 15 of the expected 668 grade change forms were missing at nine schools examined in the probe.)

The stunning decision to halt the investigation is now prompting questions about whether anyone will be held accountable, and if the investigation, which has cost the district some $159,000, was reliable to begin with.

When Shelby County Schools board members were briefed on the situation earlier this week, they did not challenge the findings or insist on further review. They stressed that they planned to focus on implementing measures to keep it from happening again. Shante Avant, the school board’s chairwoman, declined to comment.

An investigation by the state comptroller’s office into grade changing in the district is still underway, according to the county’s district attorney office, who handed off the investigation.


From the archives: Hopson says more firings possible as investigators dig deeper into Memphis grade changing


“It’s extremely disappointing [that] the only response is, ‘We want to put this behind us.’” said Ronnie Mackin, the former principal whose whistleblowing prompted the Memphis investigation. “Of course you do. You want to move on and not have any oversight or accountability whatsoever.”

Michael Pleasants, a teacher who was interviewed by another set of investigators looking into grade changes at Hamilton High School, said that while he’s glad that Shelby County Schools is putting in place a more rigorous grade-changing procedure, “the idea that the people who could get fired over this didn’t keep up with a form shows that there was no wrongdoing is laughable.”

Chris Caldwell, a former school board member who was its chair when the investigation began, said without knowing which grade changes were legitimate, it’s hard to determine if the district’s academic gains — especially with graduation rates — are real or inflated.

“If the community loses confidence in the district and the academic data the district is providing them, that’s serious,” Caldwell told Chalkbeat.

New preventative measures by Shelby County Schools
    • Conducted training of all school counselors, records secretaries and additional school staff on the process, signatures required and forms requested.
    • Initiated monthly reviews of all schools to check for changes to transcripts and ensure proper documentation from school staff.
    • Requiring transcript changes be made via forms that are signed and documented to verify grade changes.
    • Invested in additional software for data analytics and additional personnel to provide oversight across the District.
    • Hired four District-level School Compliance Advisors to provide the necessary oversight and manage the established grade changing process.
    • Implemented a grade verification process form, which allows teachers and principals to verify all grades changes that occur every nine weeks.

Source: Shelby County Schools

District policy requires school staff to fill out a paper form any time a grade on a student’s transcript is changed. The form and supporting documents justifying the revision are supposed to be in the student’s file.

Inconsistent use of the forms didn’t stop an accounting firm in 2003 from identifying grade tampering and course credits in 16 schools in Washington, D.C. Authorities there compared paper and electronic grade records, conducted interviews with teachers and administrators, and reviewed district policy.

“If they could not find so many forms, that does not look good,” Erich Martel, the whistleblower in the D.C. case, told Chalkbeat. “What that suggests to me is they were intentionally lost. That’s the inference I would draw.”

A lack of paper grade change forms also didn’t stop another set of investigators from finding fraud at Trezevant High School, the school where the scandal began in 2016.

District officials said the difference with Trezevant was that there were specific allegations against specific people, whereas the accounting firm was broadly fishing for misconduct in the second investigation.

“It’s a different methodology, different investigative techniques that were used,” said Leon Pattman, the district’s chief of internal audit. “We were looking specifically at transcript transactions and then trying to go back and find out who did it, who’s involved, all this other stuff. But when the forms aren’t there to tell us who the principals are, the parties are, that we need to look at, we don’t know who to talk to. We don’t have any of that documentation. Who do you interview?”

Mackin, the former Trezevant High principal who first brought the matter to the district’s attention, said the investigators should have looked at the computerized student management system and not stopped at grade change forms.

“In theory, there’s supposed to be a grade change form, but no one used them,” Mackin told Chalkbeat. “People were going in the computer and doing them themselves.”

In its contract with the district, Dixon Hughes Goodman said it would compare paper and electronic grade books — similar to what was done with Trezevant — that could lead them to discover discrepancies. But the firm never did that. Instead, investigators said grade change forms for transcripts were “the most reliable source of information.”

“We considered suggesting [a] scope change to include extensive interviews and other techniques to examine the grade changes without relying on grade change forms,” the firm said in its letter Wednesday to Shelby County Schools explaining why it wanted to terminate its contract early. “However, this approach would be cost prohibited compared to the original budget for this engagement and is highly unlikely to yield different results.”

District administration did not respond to requests from Chalkbeat to clarify why investigators did not compare paper and electronic grade books as written in the contract. Dixon Hughes Goodman referred all questions to Shelby County Schools.

The accounting firm started gathering grade change forms in March. They found grade change forms were missing because files were destroyed when school counselors or administrators left schools, not all schools were familiar with them or they were sent with the students when they graduated per district policy.

“Of course they don’t have the forms! Of course they don’t!” Mackin said. “If this is not the most blatant obvious coverup of wrongdoing, I don’t know what would define it.”

The grade change form was created under a former district in the area that is now folded into Shelby County Schools. When district leaders were merging differing policies and practices, the grade change form stuck around. But many school staff were unfamiliar with the process, said Joris Ray, an assistant superintendent with the district. (Story continues below)

Even some who were familiar with the forms under the former district thought the policy was abandoned when the districts merged, according to the accounting firm. That includes Shirley Quinn, the records secretary at Trezevant High School who was fired after officials discovered that over a period of three years nearly 1,000 grades changed in her name without documentation.

Quinn told investigators with the Butler Snow law firm, which oversaw the Trezevant probe, that the school had stopped using grade change forms. “They did years ago. But they stopped that,” she said, according to the interview transcript from that investigation. “With different admins[trators] it changed. Teachers don’t bring any documentation.”

Next steps identified by Shelby County Schools
    • Establish a Grading Oversight Task Force including board members, teachers, school leaders and administrators to ensure all new processes and guidelines are implemented with fidelity.
    • Approval, implementation and district-wide training of the new grading policy.
    • Initiate an electronic grade changing process that will allow us to maintain the records, as applicable by law.
    • Increase training for principals, school‐level administrators, and teachers on the new policy and additional process controls.
    • Implement changes to access controls, including limiting the number of SCS employees to have access within Power School to record historical grade changes.
    • Continue to provide oversight from principals, District‐level personnel, the internal audit department, assistant superintendents, and the superintendent.

Source: Shelby County Schools

Quinn, along with football coach Teli White, were the only ones fired at Trezevant High School. Monekea Smith, principal at Hamilton High School, was demoted last year for giving her login credentials to an unauthorized employee who made unjustified changes on report cards.

Ray, the assistant superintendent, said the best thing to do now is to train principals and other personnel so they have no excuse going forward. The district is developing an electronic grade-change form, and staff is now required to keep a copy at the school. Since the investigation was commissioned, Hopson restricted those allowed to change a student’s grade to teachers, a records secretary, and one other designee of the principal.

Ray also stressed principals and other staff will be responsible for safeguarding usernames and passwords to the district’s grading system. In every case of grade fraud identified by the district so far, school staff let other employees use their login credentials or left their computers unattended while logged in.

“We have to train folks before we hold folks to the strict accountability,” Ray told reporters Tuesday after the investigation’s release.

It’s only as of this past spring that a new state law mandated that any changes to a student’s transcript must come with detailed justification. Those who break the law could lose their teaching license and could face criminal charges.

The Tennessee Department of Education still has unanswered questions in the wake of the accounting firm’s probe, according to spokeswoman Sara Gast.

“We are asking for more feedback and context on what the auditor did or did not find and their recommendations for next steps, as well as a copy of their report,” Gast said Thursday. “We also will be requesting more information from Shelby County Schools about their records retention policies.”

Ultimately, stopping short of finding those responsible for past wrongdoing reflects poorly on the district, Mackin said.

“There’s a whole bunch of really awesome educators in Shelby County Schools, but there are people who knew cheating was going on,” he said. “It’s a continued cycle of failing our kids. … [T]here’s a small group of adults who knew about it, lied about it, and perpetuated it.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.