grading scandal

Hopson tightens who can revise student transcripts in response to grade changing in Memphis

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is in talks with state officials about the future of American Way Middle, a struggling Memphis school that the state has identified for conversion to a charter school under Shelby County Schools or takeover by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Shelby County Schools has slashed the number of people who have the ability to alter student grades, in one of several responses to a grade-changing scandal that is rocking the district.

Principals and assistant principals, school counselors, secretaries, and some people who work in the district’s central office can no longer edit student grades without designation from a principal, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told state education officials in a Jan. 11 letter outlining his response to the unfolding controversy of improper grade-changing at some Memphis high schools.

All of those people had been able to edit student report cards and transcripts. Since the end of January, Hopson said, only teachers, a records secretary, and one other designee of the principal would have that right at the school level.

This means the school records secretary who was fired after changing grades at Trezevant High School, the scandal’s epicenter, would not have been barred from revising grades under the new rules. Hopson’s letter also does not specify how many of the grade changes detected during an external audit of district high schools’ records were made by people who have lost access.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had demanded to know who had access to the district’s grading system, called PowerSchool, in a Dec. 22 letter to Hopson. She also asked for the district’s written policies for entering and editing grades, for details about how employees had been trained on those policies, and for a host of other explanations about how the district would prevent inappropriate grade changes from happening in the future.

Hopson’s letter answered those questions and detailed multiple changes that he said were underway to prevent improper grade changes. In addition to tightening access, he said, school leaders and coaches had undergone training about grading procedures the week of Jan. 14, and the district was planning similar training for teachers as well as developing a plan to renew the training annually.

But even as Hopson explained how the district was shoring up its procedures, he pointed out that the changes might not have prevented what happened at Trezevant.

The secretary there who made the grade changes had undergone training about grading policies, Hopson told McQueen. “The employees who have been terminated were not following established protocols and procedures and clearly conspired to intentionally falsify transcripts,” he wrote in the letter, which Chalkbeat obtained.

He also suggested that ensuring that all grading changes are appropriate could remain difficult for Shelby County Schools given the fact that many students change schools throughout the year, though he didn’t elaborate on how high student mobility specifically makes tracking grades difficult.

“Such discontinuity can make grading a challenge as students move from school to school at inopportune times,” Hopson wrote. “We sometimes have cases which require thoughtful deliberation to resolve [grading issues] in a manner which appropriately addresses student needs. While we will be more concerted in our efforts to have teams of Shelby County Schools educators address such issues, as opposed to staff making unilateral decisions, I trust that you and your staff will continue to be a resource for us should we have questions about specific issues.”

Hopson’s letter does not address one sweeping clarification to the district’s grading policies: temporarily halting the use of “grade floors,” a practice of setting a minimum on the lowest grade a teacher can assign. The practice had been a gray area in the district’s rules and had been used to justify some grade changes at another school, Hamilton High, where inappropriate changes were also detected.

State education officials said the district’s initial steps to respond to the scandal are positive but that the department would continue to monitor closely. In the Dec. 22 letter, McQueen ordered additional audits for the next three years from Shelby County Schools.

“It is encouraging to see the responses from the district and the new procedures and protocols they are putting in place,” said Sara Gast, a Department of Education spokesperson. “We will continue conversations with them as they continue their review and implement these new steps to ensure that all the right safeguards are in place to prevent these situations from happening again.”

You can view Hopson’s Jan. 11 letter in full below:

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.