Friday, 19 October 2012

EXCLUSIVE: Two MPS employees say they witnessed violations of grade changing

Data entry specialists working at two Montgomery high schools said they witnessed school administrators routinely violating system policy in order to help students achieve higher grades with little or no work, and both specialists said they reported the actions to their superiors within Montgomery Public Schools.

Tina Fleming, who worked at Robert E. Lee High School for 10 years before retiring last spring, and Edwina Riddlespriger, who currently works at Jefferson Davis High School after serving two years at Sidney Lanier High School, said most of the wrongdoing they witnessed was related to credit recovery at the two schools.

Fleming said she reported the actions to her computer services director. Riddlespriger said she reported her situation to assistant superintendent Lewis Washington and MPS director of human resources Ann Sippial.

?It?s not right, what I was asked to do and what they?re doing,? Riddlespriger said. ?I was told to change grades or I would be considered insubordinate. I was written up when I refused to break the rules. When I went to report what was happening, I was threatened with job abandonment.?

Riddlespriger provided the Montgomery Advertiser with a copy of the letter of reprimand and other documents that Lanier principal Michael Gibbs sent to her.

Asked about Riddlespriger?s comments following an MPS board meeting last week, Sippial said she did not recall meeting with her.

The Advertiser submitted several written questions last week that dealt specifically with allegations made by Riddlespriger and Fleming to be asked of Sippial, Gibbs and Lee principal Lorenza Pharrams.

MPS spokesman Tom Salter provided this response from Superintendent Barbara Thompson:

?MPS board counsel James ?Spud? Seale has advised that the board, superintendent and staff should refrain from discussing the grade-changing allegations and allow the investigative process (to) take its course.

?At the request of the superintendent, the board has hired an independent investigator and asked the state Department of Education to conduct a separate inquiry into the allegations. We are confident these investigations will provide the facts. The findings will be shared publicly, and at that point it will be determined what actions, if any, are necessary. Thus, on advice of counsel, the administration of the Montgomery County Board of Education will only respond to requests on this matter from state and independent investigators so that the investigation is neither compromised nor impeded.?

Riddlespriger said her issues at Lanier began last June, just before the end of the school year, when Gibbs asked her to input grade changes for several students who had completed credit-recovery courses at the school. Credit recovery is a Web-based process that allows students who have failed a course to retake only portions of that course and achieve a passing grade in much less time.

The primary responsibility of a data entry specialist is entering students? grades into the computer grading system and assisting teachers in making necessary corrections. Because most of this work involves protected student information, specialists are trained and have to be familiar with federal privacy laws and MPS guidelines in order to avoid missteps that might result in improper changes or inadvertently violating the law.

According to several teachers, the data entry specialists often were treated on school campuses as default IT techs, helping teachers set up their gradebooks, explaining why errors occurred and maintaining the integrity of the system.

In the final week of school last spring, Riddlespriger said she received several credit-recovery grade-change forms for students who went through recovery courses in alternative programs, such as Saturday school and extended day school or the Progressive Academy of Creative Education (PACE). Saturday school and extended day are options for students who need extra time to make up failed courses, while PACE is an alternative school for students with behavioral issues.

Riddlespriger said the grade-change forms tied to many of those students were missing three of the required signatures: those of the teacher of the class being retaken, the teacher who taught the credit-recovery course and the principal. In fact, she said, the only signatures on the forms were from a guidance counselor at Lanier and from a credit-recovery administrator.

Riddlespriger said the credit-recovery administrator was brought in two days before the end of the school year to ?retest some students who failed.?

In addition, Riddlespriger said some of the grades listed on the forms weren?t allowable under credit-recovery rules, and that the grades the students earned in the original courses should have prohibited them from taking part in the credit-recovery process.

According to a credit-recovery guidelines manual posted on Lanier?s website, no student can earn higher than a 70 in a recovered course ? and achieving a 70 required passing the credit-recovery course with a 90 or higher ? and no student who earns lower than a 40 can participate in the recovery program.

Another Lanier employee showed an Advertiser reporter copies of grade-change forms that showed some students enrolled in credit recovery had earned nine week?s averages of 6, 15, 28 and 38, yet were still allowed to participate in the program, and listed the final recovery-course grades as 76, 78 and 80.

?It wasn?t being done right at all,? Riddlespriger said. ?I told my principal that I can?t enter those. He came back to me and said, ?Lewis Washington says you are to enter those grades or come see him.??

The Advertiser made several phone calls and left messages for Washington over the past several weeks, including Wednesday afternoon. Washington has not returned any of the calls.

Riddlespriger said several teachers would not sign grade-change forms because they were uncomfortable with the process.

Math teacher Annette Boykin was one of the teachers Riddlespriger said refused to sign off. Contacted and asked about Riddlespriger?s comments, Boykin confirmed that she wouldn?t sign the grade-change forms, because the ?students did not earn those grades.?

?I was not comfortable with what was being asked of me,? Boykin said. ?I felt as though it jeopardized my teaching certificate to give a grade. And that?s what I was being asked to do.?

When Boykin and other teachers wouldn?t sign off, Riddlespriger said, she became the next option and Gibbs began to pressure her into making the changes.

?They went to the small man on the totem pole on the last day of school, in the midst of entering grades,? Riddlespriger said.

In addition to written questions submitted to an MPS spokesman, messages were left for Gibbs in his office requesting Gibbs to respond to allegations made by Riddlespriger.

Riddlespriger said Gibbs reported her to Washington, the assistant superintendent, and she said she was given a performance warning: Either make the changes or face disciplinary action, Riddlespriger said she was told.

She didn?t budge. And a day later, she said she received a letter of reprimand.

Riddlespriger said she went to the Alabama Education Association, the teacher?s union, to report the situation, and along with an AEA representative, went to the MPS central office to meet with Washington and Sippial. She said she explained what was happening and asked for advice on how to handle the situation.

?(Washington) just blew off what I was saying,? Riddlespriger said. ?I was told to do what my principal told me to do. They did make Mr. Gibbs put the request in writing. But no one seemed concerned about what I was telling them.?

Riddlespriger provided the Advertiser with a copy of the email Gibbs sent to her asking that she enter the grades of all recovery students, along with her response to the letter of reprimand. She said she forwarded Gibbs? email to Thompson.

Riddlespriger did not provide the Advertiser with any private student information or any other MPS-restricted information.

At Lee, Tina Fleming said she removed herself from the school because she feared she would be in a similar situation as Riddlespriger.

?I purposely missed the last week of school because I had a bad feeling that some shady things were going to go on the closer we got to inputting grades,? Fleming said. ?(Several) administrators kept coming to me, asking me questions about processes and little things. I just knew what was coming.?

Also contributing to Fleming?s angst, she said, was a string of troubling events that left her questioning the integrity of the credit-recovery-grading process at Lee.

In March, Fleming said she received a request from Pharrams, the Lee principal, to remove all students from the Access credit-recovery courses at Lee and put them into classrooms.

The Access courses are Internet-only recovery classes.

Pharrams said in an interview earlier this month that he did remove students from the courses, because of a high failure rate, but he insisted the move occurred in January, not in March.

?I had to dissolve entire classes and move teachers from teaching one class to teaching an entirely different class,? Fleming said. ?I asked Mr. Pharrams if he wanted me to talk with these teachers first, and he said no. ... He didn?t tell them anything. So, I did what I was told.?

Fleming said some teachers had two classes changed, affecting dozens of students, and because no one was warned or provided any information about the changes, there was a lot of confusion on the day of the switch.

?I showed up and all of the (students) I had been teaching for six months were gone off my rolls,? said a teacher who had been at Lee for over five years. ?I had an entire new list of kids. They weren?t even (the same grade level). And no one would tell me what was going on. After searching all morning to figure this out, I finally had a registrar give me the name of the class I was supposed to teach. To this day, no one has ever given me a reason why the change was made or given me instructions on how to handle it.?

Teachers at Lee have accused Pharrams of making the change as a way to manipulate the grades of failing students. Their contention is that dissolving the Access courses was a way to erase the failing grades and allow those students to essentially start over.

Fleming said the only way to obtain grades for the students transferred out of the online credit-recovery courses was for someone to go into the Access system, find each student?s grade for that course and post the grades to the student?s online gradebook at Lee. The system would then automatically copy those grades and fill in the holes.

?I?m pretty sure no one (went back and made the changes),? Fleming said. ?Those kids? online gradebooks were with the Access teacher. When I dis-enrolled them from the online-recovery course, I didn?t make that change. It was not my place to do that. The new teachers could not have done it, they wouldn?t have access (to the system).?

A student who took one of the recovery courses, Tommy Youngblood, who graduated last spring, confirmed that his grades in the course reflected only what he earned after the changeover.

In the weeks that followed, as Fleming said she watched the fallout from the Access changeover and from the faculty at Lee being vacated after failing to meet the average yearly progress standards set under the No Child Left Behind Act, she started to get a sense that she would be pressured to participate in improper grade changes.

Fleming said she contacted her superiors at computer services, the department for which she worked, and told them of her concerns and of the things she had heard and witnessed. She said she was told to speak to her principal about it. Fleming said she tried, but Pharrams refused to speak to her. She said that?s when she made the decision to miss several days of work.

When she returned after graduation, Fleming said she found that her computer system access had been revoked and that someone had ransacked her office.

?Things were scattered everywhere, my desk drawers were all pulled out and the contents emptied and stuff was just everywhere,? Fleming said.

Fleming said she was present when teachers at Lee received their grade verification sheets, which show the grades their students will receive on their report cards. She confirmed statements by numerous teachers that an unusually high number of ?errors? ? all of them favorable for the students ? were being spotted by teachers.

?I can?t tell you if someone made improper changes, but I can tell you that the number of errors was much higher than anything we?ve ever experienced in the 10 years I?ve been there,? she said.

Pharrams and other MPS officials said the errors were due to a glitch within the computer system that caused problems at several MPS schools.

Follow Josh Moon on Twitter at @joshmoon

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