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VOL. 11 | NO. 2 | Saturday, January 13, 2018

'F' is for Fraud

Grade-changing scandal rattles Shelby County Schools

By Bill Dries

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Just before the winter break, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had a lot of questions for the Shelby County Schools system. She had just read a 258-page report from an independent investigation of the school system’s grade-changing scandal at Trezevant High School.

McQueen also wanted assurances form SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson that there would be changes to procedures and more vigilance by the school system.

“Why does SCS leadership think the problem occurred?” McQueen asked in what is the ultimate question.

It’s a question Hopson has struggled to answer.

“You don’t know whether there could be some financial incentives, which would be criminal,” he said. “You don’t know whether people were just trying to help people out. But when you have a widespread finding like that with no clear reason for it – it just makes you scratch your head.”

More than 1,000 grades were changed over a five-year period by or using the password of Shirley Quinn, a school secretary at Trezevant.

The changes reversed 313 grades from failing to passing. Some but not all of the changes were directed by Trezevant football coach Teli White, who led the school to its first state championship in 2015 and a second state title in 2016.

The grade changes over that five-year period meant 53 ineligible students got diplomas.

The scandal followed the resignation in June of Trezevant principal Ronnie Mackin, who submitted a six-page letter alleging widespread grade changing by White and violations of school policies. Mackin resigned after the school system decided he would not return to lead the high school after a year at the helm. Mackin said he was being made the “scapegoat” for problems he notified SCS of earlier in the school year.

White, meanwhile, was suspended but was to become football coach at Melrose High School last August because only Quinn was implicated in the school system’s initial investigation.

When Quinn did a television interview naming White, SCS suspended him again just before he was to start at Melrose.

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton

Hopson had initiated a more comprehensive, independent investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to determine if similar grade changes were et making place at other schools, possibly pointing to a more widespread problem.

When the Stanton report was released in December, Hopson recommended White be fired and the school board voted to start the termination process.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, the CPA firm that was also part of the probe, found seven other SCS schools as well as several charter schools and Arlington High School had percentages at or higher than Trezevant’s fail-to-pass ratio of 53 percent. So Hopson has expanded the audit of grade changes to those seven schools.

What happened at Trezevant was different, Hopson said, and in the words of the Stanton report, “systematic.”

“What happened at Trezevant was absolutely the most egregious thing you can think about when you talk about changing grades,” Hopson said. “Just going in and cheating without any documentation, knowing that it’s fraudulent and knowing that it could have an impact forever.”

The Stanton report details grade changes for multiple students on the same day at about the same time, as evidenced by computer records.

“Moreover the vast majority of the grade changes were made 18-24 months after the students had completed the class for which the grade was issued,” according to the report.

Quinn claimed multiple teachers approached her and she changed grades without any paperwork being required. But the investigators doubted that was the case.

“For Quinn’s account to be accurate, multiple teachers had to have decided one or two years later that they gave the wrong grade and all of them had to approach Quinn at the same time in November or in the spring for her to make those changes,” the report reads. “For these reasons, little weight should be given to Quinn’s contention that all of the changes were specifically requested by teachers.”

Trezevant High's football team won state championships in 2015 and 2016. Former coach Teli White is implicated in changing grades. (scsk12.org)

Initially, Hopson believed the grade changes were all about Trezevant athletics, specifically the football team. That changed once he and the investigators got a closer look at the records.

But there was a different pattern with student-athletes.

“Numerous changes to the athletes’ transcripts were made mere minutes apart. It appears that the person using Quinn’s credentials would enter a grade and then wait for the computer system to calculate the new GPA,” the report reads.

The report, for example, cites an “Athlete #5” – none of the students are identified by name – who received a final grade of 73 in a physical science class in 2013. On Nov. 24, 2015, approximately a year and a half later, the final grade was changed from a 73 to an 82. The audit also shows that Athlete No. 5 took Spanish I in 2013, his freshman year, and received a final grade of 55. On April 25, 2015, at the end of his junior year, a person using Quinn’s credentials changed the grade on the transcript from 55 to 86.

‘UNCHARTED TERRITORY’

The grade changes at Trezevant did have the effect of upping the school’s graduation rate by 12 percent to 13 percent for a 65.2 percent graduation rate in 2015. But Hopson said even that doesn’t point to an incentive.

“It was still incredibly low and there was no financial incentive to raise your graduation rate,” he said. “There really was no financial incentive to inflate graduation rates, which just makes it even more bizarre.”

SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson

Hopson calls Trezevant “uncharted territory” but concedes there have been indications of cultural problems even as the school system has stepped up training and oversight as it transitions to online testing, teacher accountability and student achievement, and quick turnarounds of numbers for both.

SCS board member Stephanie Love, whose district includes Trezevant, has urged Hopson to “clean house.”

“I know there are people here who knew that something wasn’t right and it didn’t take this investigation to know that something wasn’t right,” Love said upon the Stanton report’s release.

The school system is retraining administrators and teachers on what is acceptable and what is not in changing grades. It is also examining its procedures as well as oversight beyond the school level.

McQueen has also said the state will audit grade changes in Shelby County Schools for the next three school years.

Hopson’s reaction and condemnation of wrongdoing in the grade-changing scandal mirrors what happened at the start of his tenure as superintendent in 2012 when federal prosecutors indicted the first set of defendants in a similar scandal.

In 2009, test proctors for the Praxis exam for certification as a teacher noticed that the same person was taking the exam at two sessions. With that, Clarence Mumford Sr., a former teacher and assistant principal in Memphis City Schools who had worked in other school systems in the region, began burning incriminating paperwork he kept.

When federal prosecutors, led by Stanton, indicted Mumford and others in 2011 it became the largest teacher-exam cheating scandal ever prosecuted in Memphis federal court.

A total of 40 one-time teachers agreed to diversion, including terms in which they gave up their teaching licenses and agreed to not even attempt to try to become teachers again for at least five years.

With the evidence prosecutors and federal and state criminal investigators gathered, they identified about 100 teacher exams taken for at least 50 teachers. Some teachers paid Mumford and others in the fraud ring to take teachers exams for them multiple times.

There is pressure on teachers and administrators to show student achievement growth and that includes graduation rates. If they don’t improve, there could be changes. And Trezevant is a high school with a lot of room for improvement even if its football program is the pride of the institution.

Hopson and Stanton’s team quickly encountered years of turnover in school leadership and faculty, including three principals in four school years. They are now seeking to reconstruct who was doing what at the school in those years as they pursue the investigation beyond White.

The school has a colorful and controversial history, much of it revolving around football.

In the 2011 Academy Award winning documentary “Undefeated,” chronicling the Manassas High School football team, the Trezevant High School football program is featured at a football game in which the down-trodden Manassas High team is taunted on the field by the Trezevant High players. Memphis Police ultimately line up across the football field at the end of the game to stop any direct physical contact between the two teams.

Trezevant became an outpost of the conventional school system in Frayser as the state-run Achievement School District focused on failing schools in Frayser because it has the highest concentration of failing schools of any area in the city.

The ASD targets schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of student achievement.

It took over seven of the nine conventional non-charter SCS schools in Frayser in its first three school years.

The ASD chose to run directly, without charter schools, Frayser and Corning Elementary and Westside Middle, adding Georgian Hills and Whitney Elementary the next school year also as direct-run takeovers. In the 2014-2015 school year, a local charter founded by the former principal of Westside Middle School – Bobby White – took over Frayser High School for the ASD. Bobby White is also an alumni of Frayser High.

Trezevant High began as an Innovation Zone School – the SCS version of an ASD school – that same school year in 2014-2015 with a new principal, the faculty reapplying for their jobs and an infusion of new teachers making up at least half of the faculty with teacher assistants added. Trezevant boosters were adamant that they didn’t want the school’s football program shelved as part of the fresh start.

They lobbied school board members for better facilities.

It was more than a dozen years after Trezevant football coach Lynn Lang effectively sold his star player, Albert Means, to an Alabama football booster for $150,000. Lang would later plead guilty to federal charges.

HAMILTON TROUBLES

As McQueen was outlining her questions and next steps in December from Nashville, Hopson’s staff was investigating grade changing allegations at Hamilton High School that appear to be connected to the use of grade floors.

Hamilton is not one of the seven other SCS schools with a percentage of fail-to-pass grade changes above the district’s average that are being investigated by the school system.

A grade floor is a minimum failing grade a principal and his/her staff can recommend teachers not go below in failing students.

Monekea Smith, in her third year as principal at Hamilton, was suspended without pay after investigators confirmed in December grades were changed there that made failing grades become passing grades. Hopson intends to recommend she be fired by the school board.

“And we are instituting an immediate moratorium on the use of grade floors districtwide,” the school system press release announcing Smith’s suspension read. “Grade floors were meant to ensure failing grades did not go below a certain level, so our students would have a better chance to improve. They were never intended to allow the changing of grades from failing to passing. … Until we can get a handle on how grade floors are being utilized from school to school, it’s in the best interest of our students to discontinue the use of them.”

SCS board members were already questioning the consistency of how grade floors are used across the system before the Hamilton revelations.

And grade floors at Trezevant are a topic covered in the Stanton report.

A month into the grade-changing investigation, Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, told school system leaders that teachers at Trezevant were told in writing by the school’s vice principal that the school had a grade floor – no grade lower than a 60.

An email exchange between Mackin and Tonye Smith-McBride, the SCS instructional leadership director of Innovation Zone Schools, is a tab in the Stanton report.

Mackin emailed that 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.”

“In all actuality, we were not asking them to ‘change’ students grades because grades had not been entered and verified when the request to consider the grade floor was communicated,” Mackin wrote. “This issue has been 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 then quoted what is chapter and verse of the grade-floor philosophy.

SCS board chairwoman Shante Knox Avant

“When a student receives a grade of 20, there is a mathematical impossibility of scoring high enough to make up the grade in the future,” he wrote. “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.”

The distinction appears to be that a school administrator can’t order a teacher to abide by a grade floor. But the teacher could still feel pressure to do so along the principal-teacher relationship that comes with some inherent tension.

The bright line on grade floors is that they cannot raise a failing grade to a passing grade.

SCS board chairwoman Shante Knox Avant said after the Stanton report’s release that it revealed “a culture that has really not supported our administration and our teachers in the best way.”

On grade floors specifically, she added, “We can be very emphatic about what our roles are and how we are going to get there for our kids.”

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 124 481 17,865
MORTGAGES 127 530 20,565
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 4 48 2,693
BUILDING PERMITS 195 891 36,836
BANKRUPTCIES 52 262 11,426
BUSINESS LICENSES 24 139 5,848
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 26 116 6,830
MARRIAGE LICENSES 26 133 4,049