grading scandal

Grade changing at some Memphis schools prompts state order for more audits

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event in Memphis. (Photo by Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat)

Improper grade-changing at two high schools in Tennessee’s largest district has prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to order follow-up audits for the next three years from Shelby County Schools.

In her sternest comments yet on the widening scandal in Memphis, McQueen called the findings of last year’s grading investigation “extremely troubling.” She relayed her order to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in a Dec. 5 letter.

The investigation, completed in November by the Memphis law firm of Butler Snow, found that 53 students at Trezevant High School received diplomas without passing the necessary classes. It also found a high rate of grade changes in several other high schools, and the district has since reported finding evidence of improper grade changes at Hamilton High School.

The district already has revised some of its protocols for entering and revising grades and continues to add safeguards to its electronic grading system — changes that Hopson and his team provided details on during a Dec. 20 conference call with McQueen.

In a letter two days later, the commissioner asked for documentation of what the district has done “to immediately address this matter to ensure the integrity of student records is maintained and employees are acting lawfully.” She specifically asked for an accounting of which job classifications have access to the grading system, the agendas for trainings to guide employees on the changes, and all written policies and procedures for entering and editing grades.

In a statement released on Friday, Hopson said Shelby County Schools has worked collaboratively with the state to improve its processes and strengthen its internal controls. “We will continue to do so and thank the State for its feedback, recommendations and support,” he said.

Shelby County Schools has been reeling since last June when Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin released a fiery resignation letter alleging a cover-up of discrepancies between student transcripts and report cards, prompting an independent investigation of grading at all Memphis high schools. A coach and secretary at Trezevant have since been fired, and the district suspended the principal of Hamilton High School in December over improper grade changes that happened under her watch. Hopson also has temporarily halted the use of “grade floors,” a practice of setting a minimum on the lowest grade a teacher can assign, which had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy.

McQueen has praised the district’s initial steps but, in her Dec. 22 letter, listed eight specific questions that the district “should be asking to better understand what happened and how it can be remedied.” She asked that Hopson provide answers to her after further investigation on:

  • Why does district leadership think the problem occurred?
  • Do employees understand their responsibilities regarding the duties of entering and editing grades but are failing to fulfill those responsibilities?
  • Are employees not aware of the proper procedures with regard to entering and editing grades?
  • Has training around the policies and procedures of entering and editing grades been clear and provided as often as necessary?
  • Does district leadership think policies and procedures need to be developed or revised to address proper entering and editing of grades?
  • Was district leadership already aware of the problem and been working on it?
  • Does the district’s electronic grading system maintain an audit log of changes, and if so, does someone have the job of checking it regularly to minimize the risk of improper grade changes?
  • What is the district’s plan to review, on a case by case basis, the transcripts of students, still enrolled, whose grades were improperly changed, to ensure students are negatively impacted as little as possible by this issue?

State spokeswoman Sara Gast said Thursday that the Department of Education’s role now is to ensure that “appropriate actions are taken to minimize the risks of this happening again.” She said state and district leaders are having ongoing discussions, and that the scope of the follow-up audits is yet to be determined. She also called the situation in Shelby County Schools a first for the state.

“Very occasionally, districts will let us know they have found potential issues with grade discrepancies, but just like in this case, they will self-report to us, complete a full investigation, consult with us as needed, and take steps to ensure that it does not happen again,” Gast said. “This is the first time we have heard of a situation where many of the discrepancies seemed to be tied to student athletes’ grades and where the scope of the overall issue may be larger.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement issued Jan. 5 from Superintendent Hopson.

Clarification: Jan. 5, 2018: The headline on a previous version of this story said Tennessee has ordered a three-year audit of Memphis schools. State officials say the exact nature of how multiple audits will occur over the next three years has not been determined, and the headline has been changed to reflect that.

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.