Widening investigation

Hopson halts ‘grade floors’ as second Memphis high school implicated in grade-changing probe

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has led Tennessee's largest school district since 2013 and has been challenged in 2017 by allegations of grade tampering in some Shelby County schools.

A widening investigation into grade-changing at Memphis high schools has led to the suspension of one principal and a moratorium on a controversial grading practice across Shelby County Schools.

Hamilton High School Principal Monekea Smith was suspended without pay after investigators found that improper grade changes happened under her watch, a district spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson also issued a moratorium on the use of “grade floors” after determining that the practice was being abused to justify unwarranted grade changes at Hamilton.

“Effective immediately, we are instituting a moratorium on the use of grade floors,” Hopson wrote Tuesday in an email to teachers. “Grade floors were meant to ensure failing grades did not go below a certain level, so our students would have a better chance of improvement. It was never intended to allow the changing of grades from failing to passing, and anyone found guilty of doing so will face immediate disciplinary action.”

The developments reflect the widening scope of an investigation into allegations of falsified grades at Memphis high schools. The examination began last year at Trezevant High School when its former principal noticed discrepancies between transcripts and report cards. A coach and a secretary have been dismissed there after investigators found evidence of wrongdoing, but the suspension of Hamilton’s principal is the first to affect other schools.

A grade floor is the lowest grade a teacher can assign a student during a single period and had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy. Independent investigators hired to look into Trezevant recommended that Shelby County Schools create uniform rules on the matter.

Hopson’s directive to ban grade floors — for now — means that teachers and administrators are not allowed to give a higher grade than what a failing student earned. He plans to propose a new policy in January based on feedback from educators.

Proponents of grade floors had called them a useful tool to motivate students who lag far behind to bring up their grades — for instance, bumping a student performing at 20 percent up to a 60 percent on a scale that requires at least a 70 percent to pass.

But the practice had gotten out of hand at Hamilton, according to Hopson.

Hamilton had not been mentioned in almost 300 pages of reports from investigators who found that 10 high schools had high rates of grade changes.

However, Hamilton was cited in a draft report from Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney who led one investigation, according to a high-level source familiar with the report. Stanton’s team found grading changes at Hamilton and recommended further investigation, but the recommendation never made it into the final report.

District officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why the recommendation was omitted from the final report. They also declined to elaborate on whether the changes at Hamilton are the result of the external investigation or an internal review.

Former Hamilton teacher Michael Pleasants was interviewed by Stanton’s team and reported that some of his students’ grades had been improperly changed during his two-year tenure. Pleasants told Chalkbeat that the district should look even wider than the schools with high instances of grade changes, citing a “pervasive” culture of pressuring teachers to pass students who aren’t ready.

“Don’t try to scapegoat anybody over this. It isn’t just one person,” he said. “It shouldn’t be presented as just a few bad apples but most people do their jobs right.”

Special education reorganization

Only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver met expectations on state tests

Just 2 percent of black students with disabilities in Denver scored at grade-level or higher on state literacy and math tests last year. In raw numbers, that’s just 33 of the 1,641 black students with disabilities in the school district, according to Denver Public Schools data.

The percentage is similar for Latino students with disabilities: only 2.6 percent met expectations on the tests. Meanwhile, nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities did.

Denver school officials recently revealed those shockingly low numbers and stark racial disparities as further justification for a previously proposed reorganization of the department that oversees special education. The reorganization would shrink the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities, and would increase the number of school psychologists and social workers.

The theory is that providing more robust mental health services in schools will allow the central office staff members who remain to shift their focus from managing behavior crises to improving academic instruction. Because of their expertise, those staff members were often tapped to help teachers deal with challenging behavior from all students, not just those with disabilities, said Eldridge Greer, who oversees special education for Denver Public Schools.

District officials also hope that increasing mental health support will reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined. District data show black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students, while Latino students are three times as likely.

“The biases that are in place in our society unfairly target African-American and Latino children to be controlled as a response to trauma, or as a response to readiness-to-learn (issues), instead of being provided more educational support,” Greer said.

Parents of students with disabilities have pushed back against the district’s plan to cut staff dedicated to special education. Advocates have, too.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said that while the district should be embarrassed by how poorly it’s serving students of color, she’s not sure the proposed reorganization will help.

She and others worry the district is siphoning money from special education to pay for services that will benefit all students – and that in the end, those with disabilities will lose out.

“If the district wants to have a full-time social worker and psychologist in every school, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bisceglia said. “What I have a problem with is the plan doesn’t suggest how instruction is going to look different (for students with disabilities) and how the curriculum is going to be different in terms of learning to read and do math.”

Greer said that in large part, the curriculum and strategies the district has in place are the right ones. What’s lacking, he said, is training for special education teachers, especially those who are new to the profession. Having a cadre of central office staff focused solely on academics will help, he said.

The reorganization, as detailed at a recent school board meeting, calls for cutting 45 districtwide experts who help principals serve students with disabilities – and who Greer said spent a lot of time managing behavior crises. In their place, the district would hire 15 academic specialists, eight more behavior specialists (the district already has seven), and four supervisors.

The overhaul would also ensure that all elementary schools have at least one full-time social worker or psychologist. Schools would also get money to put in place new discipline practices. The school board last year revised its discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through third grade.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get $50,000 to spend on a mental health worker, teacher, or teacher’s aide.

School principals invited to discuss the reorganization with the school board said they welcomed being able to hire more social workers and psychologists. But they said they are unsure about the rest of the plan.

One principal said he relied heavily on the expert assigned to help his school serve students with disabilities. Another expressed concern about losing capable staff.

“How do we retain some of that talent so we don’t end up with a brain drain and lose all these people that have all this knowledge and expertise?” said Gilberto Muñoz, the principal at Swansea Elementary School in north Denver.

When district officials first presented the plan earlier this year, they framed it as a way to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. Just 8 percent of Denver fourth-graders with disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test last year, compared with 44 percent of fourth-graders without disabilities.

But Greer said that when they dug into the data, they discovered the racial disparities.

“We knew there were disparities, but to see disparities as profound as the ones I shared with the board, it was important to elevate that,” he said.

Parent Sarah Young said it was courageous of the district to share such shocking data. But she said she thinks their plan to fix the disparities is lacking – and she disagrees with calling it a reorganization.

Young, who has a daughter with a learning disability, visual impairment, and epilepsy, said Denver Public Schools should call the plan what it is: cuts to special education.

“We understand you’re trying to handle behavior,” Young said, referring to the district. “But these are all vulnerable student populations, and we can’t pit them against each other. We can’t be robbing one to try to put a Band-Aid on another.”

Interrupted

Dump truck blamed for fiber optic line cut that disrupted TNReady testing

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A dump truck is behind the fiber optic line cut that led to more disruptions in state testing Thursday, according to the company that provides internet access for many Tennessee school districts.

The severed cable caused slow internet connections for some districts and caused others to not connect at all. A statement from Education Networks of America said Internet connections were re-established within four hours of the “major” break on Thursday morning.

“The resiliency ENA has built into our network backbone and internet access circuits did reduce the impact of the fiber cut significantly,” according to the company’s statement provided by the Tennessee Department of Education.

State officials were quick to point out the issue was not connected to its testing platform, which has been plagued with issues since the state’s three-week testing window opened on April 16.

“This is an issue related to local connectivity, not with the testing platform,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “Testing can continue, but connectivity may be slow in areas that are impacted until this is resolved.”

Many districts chose to suspend testing for the day, while others left the decision up to school principals.

In Memphis, home to the state’s largest district, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said students were “not able to connect” to the state’s online platform Thursday morning and that principals would decide whether to keep trying. At least one Memphis high school was able to complete testing Thursday afternoon.

TNReady’s online test has experienced widespread interruptions on at least four days since testing began. There were log-in issues on the first day, a reported cyber attack on the second, and a problem with online rosters on Wednesday after the state’s testing company, Questar, updated its software the night before.

Concerns about the subsequent validity of the results prompted state lawmakers to pass two pieces of legislation — the latest one on Wednesday — aimed at preventing students, teachers, schools, and districts from being negatively impacted by the data.

The online issues are affecting high school students statewide. Some districts also chose to expand computerized testing this year to middle grades. For the state’s youngest students, TNReady was being given on paper.

This story has been updated.