Widening investigation

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

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools in Memphis.

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.”

Testing

Memphis school board softens request to reform state’s troubled TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Shelby County Schools board plans to present its annual wish list to Memphis-area state legislators on Dec. 17.

The board governing Tennessee’s largest school district is asking state legislators to rely less on the standardized test known as TNReady, which has endured a tumultuous online rollout since 2016.

The school board’s annual wish list for state lawmakers dampens stronger language the Shelby County Schools board had proposed last week to “eliminate” the state’s “use and reliance” on the test.

Instead, the Memphis board wants state lawmakers to require the Tennessee Department of Education “to use multiple and/or alternative methods of accountability beyond TNReady that more accurately and reliably assess” student knowledge of state academic standards.

“Much of the trouble with state testing “was around the implementation, not necessarily the tool itself,” said board member Kevin Woods. Board members are scheduled to make their annual presentation to Memphis area lawmakers later this month.

TNReady is the state’s high stakes test that measures student academic performance, starting with third-graders. High schoolers take the online version. In the past, TNReady results have determined teacher raises and evaluations, employment, or whether to place low-performing schools in the state-run Achievement School District. But last year lawmakers temporarily barred using TNReady results for making those decisions after technical glitches interrupted testing for thousands of students.

Leaders in the state’s education department have said that despite the repeated technical difficulties, the test itself is still reliable and a good measure of student progress. In recent years, the state has overhauled requirements for student learning to make them more rigorous. Raising the bar is something the state and Shelby County Schools’ leader Dorsey Hopson agree on — even though Hopson said he had “no confidence” in the online testing system.


Related: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much.


Testing students is essential for measuring student progress, said Deidra Brooks, the chief of staff for Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization. She urged the board to specify an alternative “that would provide parents with an equitable and transparent way for parents to see how their students are doing.”

The board’s legislative agenda noted a previous bill that failed last year would have allowed districts to use the college admissions test ACT instead of TNReady for high school students. The bill also would have limited the time and number of tests students take during the school year.

Also included in the school board’s legislative agenda was the Memphis school board’s desire to have significantly more say in how charter schools are authorized and overseen.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol stands in downtown Nashville.

For example, the board said it should be able to decide which neighborhoods are “oversaturated” with schools and prevent a charter school from opening there. Many charter and traditional schools have struggled to enroll enough students as the population has fallen and more schools have opened.

The board is also looking for ways to streamline the authorizing process. It wants to cap the number of charter schools a district can authorize each year, and get rid of a provision that allows prospective charter operators to amend their application during the approval process.

Once schools are authorized, board members want the ability to “take interim measures, short of full revocation” when a charter school is not following legal guidelines or meeting academic standards during its 10-year-charter duration.

The board also continues to oppose a state voucher system that would give public money to parents to use for private school tuition. Governor-elect Bill Lee has expressed support for vouchers, which have failed in the state legislature for about a decade. Lee’s commitment to promote the initiative was underlined by hiring Tony Niknejad as his policy director, who was the former Tennessee leader of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

Below is the full legislative agenda board members will share with state lawmakers who represent the Memphis area Monday, Dec. 17. The school board’s presentation is scheduled for 1:35 p.m. at the Pink Palace Museum, 3050 Central Ave.

shift

With new school turnaround model, Tennessee takes lessons learned in Memphis to Chattanooga

PHOTO: Hamilton County Department of Education
A teacher works with students at a Chattanooga elementary school.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee has launched a third model for improving struggling schools — based in part on lessons that have emerged from the state’s first two efforts over the past decade.

The new Partnership Network, now in its first year under a five-year agreement between the state and Hamilton County Schools, is focused on five schools in Chattanooga where student achievement has languished for decades.

The collaborative model takes a page from learnings garnered mostly in Memphis. The city is the hub of the state’s two other turnaround models, one of which involves wresting control of low-performing schools from the local district.

“I would describe this model not as a state takeover, but a state pushing” toward a different style of intervention, said state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen of the Partnership Network.

All three turnaround options are outlined in Tennessee’s plan under the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law requires each state to come up with a strategy for improving chronically underperforming schools.

Most promising so far has been Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a district-led program that provides struggling Memphis schools with extra state-funded resources and charter-like autonomy.

The other approach, the state-run Achievement School District, has been lackluster in performance and heavy-handed in its execution, but state officials are hopeful it’s a late bloomer, especially under the new leadership of the iZone’s former chief. Known as the ASD, the district has taken control of dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and matched them with charter operators.

State officials once had considered the cluster of Chattanooga schools for ASD takeover. But they came up with the partnership approach as a third way, wherein a seven-member advisory board named by both partners oversees the work of the mini-school district comprising 2,300 students.


One Chattanooga school was once a heralded example of successful turnaround. What happened?


The partnership model, while unique in its structure, will only be as good as its outcomes, McQueen emphasized Monday during the advisory board’s second meeting.

Since embracing school improvement as part of a 2010 overhaul of K-12 public education, Tennessee has committed to a series of independent studies to track results with an eye toward data-driven refinements and new strategies. The research is the basis for a policy brief released this week outlining the state’s guiding principles for effective school turnaround. The Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a collaboration between Vanderbilt University and the state education department, developed the guidelines.

There is no magic bullet, said Gary T. Henry, the lead researcher behind the brief and a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt.

He said the work of fixing struggling schools is “the most challenging work in public education today.” That’s because it really does take a village, he said, that includes the local school district, the state, federal dollars, and a sustained commitment from all parties to attack the problems from multiple angles.

Vanderbilt researcher Gary T. Henry and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin talk about school turnaround work with leaders of Hamilton County’s new Partnership Network.

In addition, there must be a willingness to treat low-performing schools as special cases that merit additional resources and higher pay for effective teachers and administrators — something that school districts are loathe to do and that defies political gravity, Henry said.

It also means building a district-within-a-district organizational structure dedicated to school improvement; removing barriers to improvement such as high teacher and leader turnover rates; increasing capacity for effective teaching and leadership with supports such as curriculum, training, and mentoring; and establishing school practices and processes — like opportunities for teacher collaboration — that promote continuity and stability.

“Doing one or two of these will not necessarily change the lives of students and teachers and principals. But doing all five intelligently and in focused fashion can,” Henry said.

The work must recognize, too, the profound impact of poverty on the students who generally attend low-performing schools, said Sharon Griffin, the former iZone chief hired last spring to run the state-run ASD.

“Sometimes just showing up (to school) is a miracle,” Griffin said of kids who bring adverse and chronically stressful experiences into schools and classrooms.

A nationally recognized turnaround leader, Griffin told the new Chattanooga advisory board about the improvement work she has “lived and breathed” as a Memphis teacher, principal, and iZone superintendent. She urged them to get inside of schools, stay student-focused in their oversight of the Partnership Network, and plan for a marathon instead of a sprint.

“The work can’t stop. The sense of urgency cannot stop,” she said.