SCS grade tampering investigation ends after documents go missing

SCS grade tampering investigation ends after documents go missing
(Source: WMC Action News 5)

SHELBY COUNTY, TN (WMC) - The investigation into grade tampering within Shelby County Schools is over because grade discrepancy documents for 98 percent of those grades are gone.

Tuesday night, an investigation into possible grade changes within SCS ended after a firm found that the documents it needed to conduct the investigation were missing.

SCS board member Kevin Woods said the firm was looking into nine different schools, but he didn’t say which schools.

The question now is where those documents went. Months after an independent firm started looking into grade-changing accusations at some Shelby County schools, it recommended to end the investigation.

At an Internal Board Operations Committee meeting Tuesday night, Dixon, Hughes, Goodman Law Firm said there was limited availability of documentation related to grade discrepancies, according to a letter from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to district employees.

"The district is really working towards taking a situation that obviously everyone agreed that was not working and now we're moving forward,” said SCS board member Michelle McKissak.

The firm was hired by the district to investigate the changes to students grades over the years. SCS spent $159,000 on the firm.

The letter from Hopson, which was obtained by WMC, also said board members agreed with the firm’s recommendation, agreeing it’s not worth the additional time and resources to continue if DHG is unable to access the necessary information.

"The greater majority was something that was not intentional but when you’re dealing with old fashion paper and files, you’re just going to lose track, and the process was not the best,” McKissak said.

In that same letter, Hopson said they’ll be implementing a “new district policy that includes a detailed electronic grade-changing approval process for any grade change and greater oversight for all schools.”

We reached out to Dixon, Hughes, Goodman for specifics on the findings. The firm said it can’t issue a statement on their client’s behalf.

SCS grade tampering investigation ends after documents go missing

"The process was not the best,” McKissack said, acknowledging the district gets a failing grade for its previous record keeping practices. "People just didn't keep up with it or keep track of it."

Of 668 possible grade changes under investigation, the auditing firm hired by SCS could only find paperwork for 15.

"I guess one of the things that we can do, one of the things we should have done is apologize,” said SCS board member Stephanie Love.

Love said parents, teachers and the community deserve an apology.

A 2016 investigation at Trezevant High uncovered a massive grade changing scandal. It triggered the now-defunct investigation at nine other schools.

"I know for parents it's frustrating,” Love said. “I know, you know, it kind of makes people not trust the district. We're going to put things in place, which we've already started to do, to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again."

"We had a problem,” McKissack said. “We're addressing the problem and now we're moving forward. We're going to fix the problem by making everything digital."

In addition to going digital, SCS will establish an oversight committee, implement district-wide training, and limit employee access to student records.

SCS released the following statement about the findings.

Since grading discrepancies were first self-reported in September 2016, we have worked diligently to investigate the situation, inform stakeholders and take all appropriate actions. To provide an added layer of assurance and transparency, we contracted Dixon Hughes Goodman, LLC (DHG) to conduct an independent external analysis of our records systems and practices to further protect the integrity of student grades. DHG has recommended the termination of the current examination due to the limited availability of documentation related to grade changes. 

Below is a summary of the progress made to date along with SCS’s next steps.

Process Improvements Made to Date by SCS

To prevent issues such as this from happening in the future, SCS has established the following processes and actions:

  • Conducted training of all school counselors, records secretaries and additional school staff on the process, signatures required and forms requested.
  • Initiated monthly reviews of all schools to check for changes to transcripts and ensure proper documentation from school staff.
  • Requiring transcript changes be made via forms that are signed and documented to verify grade changes.
  • Invested in additional software for data analytics and additional personnel to provide oversight across the District.
  • Hired four District-level School Compliance Advisors to provide the necessary oversight and manage the established grade changing process.
  • Implemented a grade verification process form, which allows teachers and principals to verify all grades changes that occur every nine weeks. 

Next Steps

  • Establish a Grading Oversight Task Force including board members, teachers, school leaders and administrators to ensure all new processes and guidelines are implemented with fidelity. 
  • Approval, implementation and District-wide training of the new grading policy.
  • Initiate an electronic grade changing process that will allow us to maintain the records, as applicable by law.
  • Increase training for principals, school‐level administrators, and teachers on the new policy and additional process controls.
  • Implement changes to access controls, including limiting the number of SCS employees to have access within Power School to record historical grade changes.
  • Continue to provide oversight from principals, District‐level personnel, the internal audit department, assistant superintendents, and the superintendent.

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