VOL. 132 | NO. 247 | Thursday, December 14, 2017
Grade Floors Revealed With Grade Tampering
By Bill Dries
As Shelby County Schools officials were just beginning to investigate allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School in September 2016, they were also looking into reports that Trezevant teachers were told in writing by the vice principal that the school had a “grade floor” – no nine-week grades lower than a 60.
The grade-floor complaint was made by Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, weeks after grade transcript tampering allegations were made by Trezevant principal Ronnie Mackin.
Williams said teachers had told him they were “given an oral edict and written documents” about the grade-floor policy.
The email chain between Mackin and SCS officials in October 2016 is part of a report by independent investigators of allegations of grade changing by Trezevant High School football coach Teli White. The report concluded there was “systematic” grade changing over a five-year period at Trezevant and that White was involved.
Mackin resigned as principal in June after making more detailed allegations of grade tampering.
There have been allegations of grade floors at other schools since the start of the independent investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton and school board members say they continue to look into them.
“We did not say that we are not going to touch it,” SCS board member Miska Clay Bibbs said at the Dec. 5 school board meeting, responding to media reports. “We are still talking about it.”
Mackin’s first responses in October 2016 to inquiries from Tonye Smith-McBride, the SCS instructional leadership director of Innovation Zone Schools, are brief. He initially emailed Smith-McBride that he “was not aware I was supposed to be ‘conducting’ an investigation. He also wanted to see the emails or documents.
“Not having the email does not prevent you from investigating what directions have been given to staff members by the vice principal,” she wrote, referring to Trezevant vice principal Brittany Clark Bratton’s assertion that there was a grade-floor policy in place at Trezevant.
Two days later, Mackin responded with a one-line email: “We have not violated any SCS policy on grading.”
Smith-McBride emailed several hours later quoting that SCS policy on nine-week grades includes a formula for teachers to assess average daily work, oral and written assignments, projects and tests. The policy reads in part: “The teacher will assess all student assignments and weigh the value of grades given for various assignments within the nine-week term in computing the term grade.”
“I am wondering what policy supports the directive expressed in Mrs. Bratton’s email,” Smith-McBride added.
In a lengthy response two hours later, Mackin said there is “no policy stating that the common practice of implementing a grade floor of 60 is either in violation or support of Shelby County Schools policy 5015.
“In all actuality, we were not asking them to ‘change’ student grades because grades had not been entered and verified when the request to consider the grade floor was communicated,” Mackin wrote. “This issue was being compared to the ‘Trezevant grades debacle’ and these are not the same issues.”
He also justified a grade floor of 60, saying it “allows students to still be successful in the future and does not cumulatively hold the student in failure for the duration of the school year. This is common practice in Shelby County Schools and does not violate any specific policy relating to grades,” Mackin wrote, saying the email “encouraged teachers to consider” a grade floor of 60 but did not require it.
Mackin continued: “When a student receives a grade of 20, there is mathematical impossibility of scoring high enough to make up the grade in the future, therefore creating other situations for the students and teacher, including but not limited to lack of work completion, disruptive behavior, lack of investment in assignments, which can all cause discipline issues with the student for the remainder of the school year.”
Smith-McBride replied: “I fully understand your position and the reasoning behind it.”
She also urged Mackin to talk with teachers about it to avoid misunderstandings in the future.
One of the recommendations of the independent investigators is to make grading policies uniform across the school district as well as consistently enforcing the policy.
“SCS should train teachers and administrators regularly on grading policies, particularly policies relating to a teacher’s authority to determine a student’s grade,” Stanton’s report reads.
SCS board chairwoman Shante Avant said the report as a whole addresses “a culture that has really not supported our administration and our teachers in the best way.”
“We can be very emphatic about what our roles are and how we are going to get there for our kids,” she said specifically of the grade-floor issues raised in the report. “The board heard very clearly based on some of the recommendations from the report that we had, and definitely from our teachers and administrators, why it is important for us to have a policy that supports them.”