After evidence surfaced of improper grade changing at a Memphis school, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson vowed that the district would put policies in place to prevent such “criminal” actions from happening again, and said that those who violated existing policies would be fired.
But then Dixon Hughes Goodman, the accounting firm hired to dig deeper into possible grade tampering elsewhere in the district, gave up this week — determining that the grade-change forms needed to prove misconduct were missing in just about every case. (All but 15 of the expected 668 grade change forms were missing at nine schools examined in the probe.)
The stunning decision to halt the investigation is now prompting questions about whether anyone will be held accountable, and if the investigation, which has cost the district some $159,000, was reliable to begin with.
When Shelby County Schools board members were briefed on the situation earlier this week, they did not challenge the findings or insist on further review. They stressed that they planned to focus on implementing measures to keep it from happening again. Shante Avant, the school board’s chairwoman, declined to comment.
An investigation by the state comptroller’s office into grade changing in the district is still underway, according to the county’s district attorney office, who handed off the investigation.
“It’s extremely disappointing [that] the only response is, ‘We want to put this behind us.’” said Ronnie Mackin, the former principal whose whistleblowing prompted the Memphis investigation. “Of course you do. You want to move on and not have any oversight or accountability whatsoever.”
Michael Pleasants, a teacher who was interviewed by another set of investigators looking into grade changes at Hamilton High School, said that while he’s glad that Shelby County Schools is putting in place a more rigorous grade-changing procedure, “the idea that the people who could get fired over this didn’t keep up with a form shows that there was no wrongdoing is laughable.”
Chris Caldwell, a former school board member who was its chair when the investigation began, said without knowing which grade changes were legitimate, it’s hard to determine if the district’s academic gains — especially with graduation rates — are real or inflated.
“If the community loses confidence in the district and the academic data the district is providing them, that’s serious,” Caldwell told Chalkbeat.
District policy requires school staff to fill out a paper form any time a grade on a student’s transcript is changed. The form and supporting documents justifying the revision are supposed to be in the student’s file.
Inconsistent use of the forms didn’t stop an accounting firm in 2003 from identifying grade tampering and course credits in 16 schools in Washington, D.C. Authorities there compared paper and electronic grade records, conducted interviews with teachers and administrators, and reviewed district policy.
“If they could not find so many forms, that does not look good,” Erich Martel, the whistleblower in the D.C. case, told Chalkbeat. “What that suggests to me is they were intentionally lost. That’s the inference I would draw.”
A lack of paper grade change forms also didn’t stop another set of investigators from finding fraud at Trezevant High School, the school where the scandal began in 2016.
District officials said the difference with Trezevant was that there were specific allegations against specific people, whereas the accounting firm was broadly fishing for misconduct in the second investigation.
“It’s a different methodology, different investigative techniques that were used,” said Leon Pattman, the district’s chief of internal audit. “We were looking specifically at transcript transactions and then trying to go back and find out who did it, who’s involved, all this other stuff. But when the forms aren’t there to tell us who the principals are, the parties are, that we need to look at, we don’t know who to talk to. We don’t have any of that documentation. Who do you interview?”
Mackin, the former Trezevant High principal who first brought the matter to the district’s attention, said the investigators should have looked at the computerized student management system and not stopped at grade change forms.
“In theory, there’s supposed to be a grade change form, but no one used them,” Mackin told Chalkbeat. “People were going in the computer and doing them themselves.”
In its contract with the district, Dixon Hughes Goodman said it would compare paper and electronic grade books — similar to what was done with Trezevant — that could lead them to discover discrepancies. But the firm never did that. Instead, investigators said grade change forms for transcripts were “the most reliable source of information.”
“We considered suggesting [a] scope change to include extensive interviews and other techniques to examine the grade changes without relying on grade change forms,” the firm said in its letter Wednesday to Shelby County Schools explaining why it wanted to terminate its contract early. “However, this approach would be cost prohibited compared to the original budget for this engagement and is highly unlikely to yield different results.”
District administration did not respond to requests from Chalkbeat to clarify why investigators did not compare paper and electronic grade books as written in the contract. Dixon Hughes Goodman referred all questions to Shelby County Schools.
The accounting firm started gathering grade change forms in March. They found grade change forms were missing because files were destroyed when school counselors or administrators left schools, not all schools were familiar with them or they were sent with the students when they graduated per district policy.
“Of course they don’t have the forms! Of course they don’t!” Mackin said. “If this is not the most blatant obvious coverup of wrongdoing, I don’t know what would define it.”
The grade change form was created under a former district in the area that is now folded into Shelby County Schools. When district leaders were merging differing policies and practices, the grade change form stuck around. But many school staff were unfamiliar with the process, said Joris Ray, an assistant superintendent with the district. (Story continues below)
Even some who were familiar with the forms under the former district thought the policy was abandoned when the districts merged, according to the accounting firm. That includes Shirley Quinn, the records secretary at Trezevant High School who was fired after officials discovered that over a period of three years nearly 1,000 grades changed in her name without documentation.
Quinn told investigators with the Butler Snow law firm, which oversaw the Trezevant probe, that the school had stopped using grade change forms. “They did years ago. But they stopped that,” she said, according to the interview transcript from that investigation. “With different admins[trators] it changed. Teachers don’t bring any documentation.”
Quinn, along with football coach Teli White, were the only ones fired at Trezevant High School. Monekea Smith, principal at Hamilton High School, was demoted last year for giving her login credentials to an unauthorized employee who made unjustified changes on report cards.
Ray, the assistant superintendent, said the best thing to do now is to train principals and other personnel so they have no excuse going forward. The district is developing an electronic grade-change form, and staff is now required to keep a copy at the school. Since the investigation was commissioned, Hopson restricted those allowed to change a student’s grade to teachers, a records secretary, and one other designee of the principal.
Ray also stressed principals and other staff will be responsible for safeguarding usernames and passwords to the district’s grading system. In every case of grade fraud identified by the district so far, school staff let other employees use their login credentials or left their computers unattended while logged in.
“We have to train folks before we hold folks to the strict accountability,” Ray told reporters Tuesday after the investigation’s release.
It’s only as of this past spring that a new state law mandated that any changes to a student’s transcript must come with detailed justification. Those who break the law could lose their teaching license and could face criminal charges.
The Tennessee Department of Education still has unanswered questions in the wake of the accounting firm’s probe, according to spokeswoman Sara Gast.
“We are asking for more feedback and context on what the auditor did or did not find and their recommendations for next steps, as well as a copy of their report,” Gast said Thursday. “We also will be requesting more information from Shelby County Schools about their records retention policies.”
Ultimately, stopping short of finding those responsible for past wrongdoing reflects poorly on the district, Mackin said.
“There’s a whole bunch of really awesome educators in Shelby County Schools, but there are people who knew cheating was going on,” he said. “It’s a continued cycle of failing our kids. … [T]here’s a small group of adults who knew about it, lied about it, and perpetuated it.”