A few weeks ago, I updated the community about eight investigations we completed this past school year involving inappropriate grade changes (four from the 2013-2014 school year and four from the 2014-2015 school year). As we strive to uncover those remnants of unethical behavior that may still exist within our district, I committed to completing a comprehensive review of grade changes across the district with a focus on identifying process improvements and procedural safeguards before the start of the new school year.
I also committed to complete transparency in this process, and as we are at the midpoint of our analysis, I wanted to share a status update with the community.
Our Chief Accountability Officer, Bill Caritj, and his team started by running several reports from our student information management system, Infinite Campus. These reports tell us precisely how many grade changes took place after teachers posted their grades for the grading period.
Given my experience as a superintendent in other districts, I knew that grade changes were a typical part of a school’s operation, especially at the high school level. From our investigations, I also knew that we had some people pushing the envelope and even crossing the line in terms of acceptable grade changing practices, so I wasn’t sure how to contextualize the 2,134 grade changes that our Accountability Office told me took place in our high schools during the 2014-2015 school year.
Naturally, my team put that into context for me. The 2,134 is out of a possible 185,000 grades for high school students in one school year (11,556 students x 16 grades per year = approximately 185,000). They also informed me that of the 2,134 grade changes, less than half (741) of these changes were either from failing to passing grades or from letter grades (such as “incompletes”) to passing grades. In many cases (889), while there was a grade change, it was correcting or changing a passing grade to another higher or lower passing grade. The third big category of changes was grade changes that resulted in failing final grades (481). The last small group (23) were grade changes that resulted in letter grades such as “incompletes.”
But, still…2,134? Why do we have so many grade changes? That’s what the team has been spending a lot of time trying to answer.
The team has done a good job documenting all of the different reasons for these grade changes, and not surprisingly, they have surfaced many legitimate reasons for why a grade is changed between the time it is closed in a teacher’s gradebook and then posted on the student’s transcript. While the analysis is not complete, some of the most common reasons that have surfaced so far include:
- Students enrolled in dual enrollment programs had their official APS transcripts updated when their transcripts were received from GSU or Atlanta Metropolitan College.
- Student grades were changed from an Incomplete (I) to a failing grade after the school notified the parents (APS policy requires that parents are notified of failing grades, and in some cases these notifications happened after the gradebook window was closed, so the grade changes were done directly on the transcript).
- Due to the strict window for closing gradebooks, many of the grade changes appear to be situations where the teachers offered make-up assignments or extra credit assignments after the gradebook window had closed, thereby requiring the change to be made directly on the transcript.
- Credit recovery is another common reason for grade changes. In these cases, students are retaking a course that was failed previously, and they do not complete the work before grades were posted. They are later corrected when the program is completed.
- Similarly, some students who are participating in unit recovery programs because they have struggled with some course content, complete the units after grades are posted and their transcripts are updated.
As you can imagine, these are just a few of the most common reasons, but many more are surfacing through this analysis. Where the data is incomplete or the reasons for grade changes are unclear, our Chief Accountability Officer is physically looking at the paper documentation and visiting with principals and registrars to better understand their school level procedures. I have directed the team to leave no stone unturned, and they are working diligently to ensure that we have a thorough understanding of the issue.
As the analysis has unfolded, the team has already identified some process improvements that they will be recommending.
- First, better training with the grade book tool will likely reduce some of the changes that are necessitated by mistakes on the front end.
- It’s also clear to me that our grading practices across the district are not consistent, which can be tightened up through our training. For example, why do some schools apply the extra weight for AP courses after the grade book has been posted to transcript (thereby triggering a “grade change”) while others do it before?
- The team is also working with our vendor, Infinite Campus, to explore technology solutions that would embed a tighter authorization process for changing grades on the transcript. In this way, someone at the central office would be responsible for validating the rationale for the change before it is authorized.
- Once we implement some of these process improvements, it will be critical that we also step up our game in terms of monitoring. I’m learning that we have the technology to monitor this much more closely than the district has in the past. The team will be recommending a regular cycle of auditing grade changes to ensure that an early warning system is integrated into our practice.
While there are still some open questions and some additional work to be done around our process improvements, I am encouraged by the progress our team has made in understanding grade changing practices across the district.
I’m also reminded, however, that grade-changing practices represent just one aspect of a very complex system – a system that is far from operating at the level of excellence our kids deserve. Although we want to fix it all at once, I know that we have to tackle these individual issues head-on, while at the same time dealing with the root causes around culture that too frequently get in the way of achieving our vision. We’re making progress, and I’m committed to keeping my foot on the accelerator because our kids are counting on us!