Faking the Grade
Twelve weeks into the school year, Joy Kay got the surprise of her teaching career. A parent who had come to her biology classroom at Thomas Jefferson High School to pick up her child's progress report wondered why her kid had gotten a B at the six-week grading period and a C at the twelve-week mark.
Kay, too, was baffled: She'd given the student a D six weeks earlier.
So Kay went back into the school's computerized grading system and discovered that fourteen of her 28 students had higher six-week grades than what she'd given them: Three students to whom she'd given F's had been credited with C's; one D had become an A; six D's had become three B's and three C's; two C's had become A's; and two B's had become A's. At first Kay suspected that a student had hacked into the system. But she later discovered that an assistant principal had assigned the new grades.
Four weeks into the school year, administrators at TJ had laid off a part-time biology teacher because the school hadn't received enough funding from Denver Public Schools to pay for her position. Principal Ann Bailey asked Kay to take over that teacher's eighth-period biology class. In mid-October, almost two weeks later, six-week grades were due. Since the students in the class had completed only a couple of assignments for Kay, she asked assistant principal and athletic director Len Ashford if she could give them incompletes. Ashford said no, but he told her he would give her the students' grades from the first four weeks of school so that she could average them in.
When she'd finished calculating the grades, Kay says she gave them to Ashford and didn't think about them again -- at least until she discovered that they had been changed.
On December 6, right after the twelve-week report-card pickup, Kay asked Ashford what had happened; she says he told her to talk to another assistant principal, John North. After asking North about it three times, Kay finally got a note from him. But his writing was illegible, she says, so she showed it to Ashford, who also could not read it; the two of them then called a meeting with North.
"Mr. North yelled at me and said he changed the grades because I'm a bad teacher," Kay says. "He said, 'If I were a teacher and had kids with such low grades, I don't know how I could live with myself. I don't see how you can look in the mirror. You should be ashamed of yourself.'"
Kay had had the students for two weeks.
"I told him that he can't just change grades like that and that he can't talk to me like that, and he said he can do whatever he wants," Kay says. "Then he told me to get out of his office."
Kay immediately went to see principal Bailey, who assured her that she'd investigate. Kay also called the DPS administrative office and spoke to Melanie Haas, executive director for secondary education, who said she'd look into it as well. After getting no response for several days, Kay went back to the principal's office just before winter break and requested a meeting with North. At that meeting, Kay says, North denied yelling at her. "He pulled Mr. Ashford into the room, and [Ashford] corroborated what Mr. North said. Mr. North said he put the grades on a standardized bell curve because it was the appropriate thing to do, but he didn't explain why," Kay says.
After school resumed in January, Kay requested a final meeting with Bailey, North and DPS's Haas. That's when she claims North changed his story. "Mr. North said that Mr. Ashford hadn't told him that I'd turned in my grades, so he said he gave the students grades based on what the first teacher had given them. But those grades clearly don't match the percentages the first teacher gave them, and they don't fit on any bell curve," Kay says. "I asked them to change the grades back, and they said they wouldn't do that. They said it was all just a big miscommunication. But it wasn't. Anyway, an administrator doesn't just give kids grades without a teacher's input."
Ashford deferred comment to the school district's public information office on the advice of Bailey, who didn't return phone calls from Westword. But North insists he never received the students' six-week grades from Kay. In fact, he says, she shouldn't have even been allowed to grade them in the first place, because there is a policy that a teacher has to have a class for at least ten days before she can assign grades. He says he was left with no choice but to grade the students himself based on what they'd done during the first four weeks. (Kay says she's never heard of a ten-day rule, and DPS spokeswoman Amy Hudson says the district has no such policy, although she says TJ may have its own policy.)
"I took the total points available, found the average points earned by the students in that class and graded them on a curve," he says. "She went back and determined the grades she would have given them in the first six weeks. If a kid is not in your class for ten days, you have to give them an incomplete. But we couldn't give these kids incompletes; an incomplete is the same thing as an F, and that wouldn't be fair to the kids, because some of them were playing fall sports. If a student gets two or more Fs on their progress report, they're ineligible to play sports and they have to wait another six weeks to make up their grades. I don't know how many of her students were athletes. I never counted or looked to see if any of them had other Fs and would be ineligible to play."
Kay says that at least seven of the students whose grades were changed were athletes.
North, who was once the athletic director at Lincoln High School, agrees that he was stern with Kay. "I told her that if I had as many kids as her failing, I'd look at myself in the mirror and look at if I should change the [teaching] methods I'm using. I did make that statement, and I stand by that," he says. North also says that the first progress report isn't a very big deal, anyway. "It all works out in the end. There are three six-week grading periods in a semester. It's the final grade that goes on the transcript."
Kay's claims "were taken seriously and investigated carefully," according to Marge Tepper, assistant superintendent for secondary education, who released a written statement about the matter. "The administrative staff at TJ had to step in at an unusual time, and they provided useful assistance for both parents and students, generating a valid progress report for all students that was based on the best information available. John North and the staff at TJ clearly had the best interests of students at heart."
This isn't the first time administrators at TJ have been accused of helping student athletes. In October 1996, Montbello High School's football coach alerted the Colorado High School Activities Association that TJ's football coach, Oliver Lucas, had used ineligible players in games against Montbello and Lincoln High School. Manual High School officials followed suit. The Montbello coach also accused TJ administrators of changing athletes' grades. CHSAA determined that TJ had, in fact, knowingly used ineligible players, and the team was forced to forfeit its wins against Montbello, Lincoln and Manual. The organization then put TJ's entire athletic department on probation for a year. Lucas resigned, but nothing ever came of the grade-changing accusation.
Bob Ottewill, commissioner of CHSAA, says that in his 29 years at the association, he's never seen a proven case of a school changing students' grades to keep them eligible. He also says that none of the administrators who are at TJ now were there during the Lucas flap.
The Contemporary Learning Academy, an alternative high school in northwest Denver, became the center of more grade-changing accusations last week when principal Linda Hoeksema admitted to giving about eighty students credit for classes they didn't take in an effort to keep them in school. DPS policy says that if a student has more than six absences in a class, he fails. Since 85 percent of the students at the Contemporary Learning Academy have poor attendance records, Hoeksema explained, she and her teaching staff decided to give them half credits if they'd missed between six and ten classes. "It was an incentive to keep students here," she said at a press conference on January 26.
Now that the school district has learned about the fabrications, the students will have to make up the coursework. Hoeksema received a letter of reprimand in her personnel file but will remain at the school, at least for a while: The Colorado Department of Education forbids teachers and administrators from falsifying student records, and it may investigate. The state Board of Education would ultimately decide whether to revoke teachers' licenses; if it does, those teachers would no longer be able to work in Colorado public schools.
Kay has been teaching for eleven years, three of them at TJ. But she is so disheartened by what has happened that she says she will quit at the end of the school year. "I don't trust the system anymore," she says. "I'm giving my heart here and it doesn't mean a thing. I just graded my kids' 66th assignment. Why did I bother if my grades don't matter?
"But this isn't about a disservice that was done to me," she adds. "It's about a disservice that was done to the kids. Changing grades teaches kids that there's no accountability."
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