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APS grade changing: Gaming the system or a fact of life in schools?

APS reporter Molly Bloom had a deep look in the AJC over the weekend at grade changing in Atlanta Public Schools. Her excellent story revealed some troubling facts:

  • While Atlanta Public Schools monitored how many students failed classes and pushed for fewer F's, the district did not explore the justifications behind more than 7,700 student grade changes over the past three years. A quarter of those changes turned failing grades to passing grades. About one in five of those changes involved grades that started out below 50.
  • About 3,500 APS high school grades were changed during the 2013-14 school year. That includes grades that were raised, lowered or changed from incompletes or other notations into district-required numeric grades. That works out to a per-student rate approximately 30 times greater than DeKalb County high schools.
  • The two districts are closer when it comes to changing failing grades to passing. In Atlanta, about one grade change in three turned an F into a passing grade. In DeKalb, that figure was about one grade change in four. (This could be going on in other metro districts, but the districts told the AJC they were unable to provide complete grade-change numbers.)
  • These grade changes were occurring while Atlanta was under investigation for widespread cheating on state exams. A chief reason for the test tamping was the immense pressure on educators to show student success. It would seem the same pressure could also foster grade changing.

(My kids are now under International Baccalaureate grading, which, by its complexity and multiple moving parts, deflects parent inquiries.)

I know parents who discovered their child lost points for a missed assignment or test that was completed. I’ve had two instances where grades on a child’s transcript were wrong due to data entry mistakes. (I encourage parents to obtain their child’s high school transcript and review it as errors occur. It’s helpful to compare transcripts with report cards.)

Bloom reports: (This is an excerpt of a much longer story. Please read the full story before commenting.)

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, one year into her job, has launched an investigation into grade changing and implemented policies to control it. But she said she is still trying to change a culture where doing the right thing isn't always the norm.

In February, associate superintendent for high schools Timothy Gadson emailed principals to say he was concerned about the "staggering number" of students who earned grades below 50. He sent a school-by-school list of the number of students who received sub-50 grades.

"You should have conversations with your teacher[s] about this trend," he wrote. Although district policy required Gadson to be notified of any grade changes, those notifications never happened, Gadson said. Gadson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he meant school staff should be talking about making sure students learned and received help, not about changing grades.

After the AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported in May about allegations of grade changing at a South Atlanta high school and allegations of other improper grading practices, Carstarphen sent South Atlanta School of Law and Social Justice Principal Charlotte Davis a letter saying her contract would not be renewed. Davis later resigned.

Carstarphen promised better oversight of grading practices and ordered a district-wide internal investigation. A final report is expected later this month.

Carstarphen has promised that future investigations into allegations of improper grade changing will be completed more quickly.

APS policy in effect until this October generally limited grade changes to two circumstances: Data entry errors and grade increases when a student who would otherwise have received an F completed work specified in a written academic contract.

Many of the Atlanta grade changes were due to updated marks for dual enrollment courses, changes from an incomplete to an F after parental notification, or changes when teachers offered students a chance to make up work, district officials said.

Four years after a state report detailed the widespread cheating problem on standardized tests, the district still faces a culture that allows unethical behavior to continue unchecked, Carstarphen said. "It still frustrates me immensely that we have adults in the system that are still trying to game the system," Carstarphen said. "We have to be better than this."


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.