MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When the grade-changing scandal involving Montgomery Public Schools first broke, school system officials tried to paint it as something limited to a small number of students involving a handful of system employees.
But after a scathing letter from the state superintendent of education to Montgomery School Superintendent Barbara Thompson was released this week, it became clear that it was much more than that.
The letter from state Superintendent Tommy Bice called the grade-changing issue "systemic" and "widespread" and suggested that an "institutional mindset" exists that places more importance on advancing non-magnet students than in actually teaching them.
And if the grade scandal was not enough, Bice's letter raised the possibility that MPS has failed to follow "local and state attendance policies." That suggests that there could be another probe of MPS or at least an extension of the current, still-ongoing one.
Bice's letter outlined a pattern of abuse of the state's credit-recovery program, which is designed to allow students who fail a course to gain credit for the course after showing a mastery of its content.
Among the issues alleged by the state superintendent were:
- Students were allowed to take a course for the first time in credit/grade recovery, which is not the intent of the program.
- There was a lack of documentation to support grade changes, and some changes were not signed or signed by someone without the authority to do so.
- School officials relied on "questionable written materials" -- "much of which appears ungraded" -- to supplement or replace required scores.
- Students who failed credit recovery tests, or who took no test at all, were given passing grades.
- Students with grades in a course below 40 were allowed to take credit recovery, and some students who took credit recovery were given a grade higher than a 70 -- both of which violate credit recovery guidelines.
In addition to abuse of the credit recovery program, Bice said MPS fostered an atmosphere "that discourages reporting and correcting violations." This included disciplinary action against employees who refused to participate in improper grade-changing and administrators who turned a blind eye to violations.
All of this led Bice to write: "The violations and deficiencies identified are so widespread as to indicate that an institutional mindset exists within certain schools in the MPSS that places paramount importance on advancing students without sufficient regard to actually satisfying the ALSDE's course of study requirements, improving students' education, and preparing the students for college or a career."
"In other words," Bice wrote, "it appears that properly educating students has become subservient to merely advancing them."
That may well be the harshest criticism of a public school system by an official that I have encountered in four decades of writing about public education.
What about the system's widely lauded magnet programs? Parents of students in the magnet schools can relax; Bice drew a distinction between magnet and non-magnet expectations in Montgomery Public Schools. But he noted that this raised the problem of different expectations "within the same school system for employees and students."
When I talked with a spokesman for the State Department of Education, he emphasized that there would be no details released at this time about the number of MPS employees who potentially would be disciplined by the state because the "investigation was still ongoing." So the possibility exists that further problems will be uncovered.
When MPS Superintendent Thompson first publicly commented on the grade-changing issue in December, she clearly was trying to minimize the extent of the scandal. At least now she is acknowledging the seriousness of the issue.
But it also is clear from Bice's letter that he expects much more to be done than has been done to date to ensure these problems do not continue.
For instance, Thompson said in her news conference Wednesday that disciplinary action against employees who violated policies would come from the state. But Bice asked in his letter, "What disciplinary measures is your board prepared to take against those individuals who fail to uphold state and local policies?" So clearly he expects some additional action at the local level as well.
But by far the most intriguing question Bice proposed to Thompson was: "What plans do you propose to create a culture of high and ethically implemented expectations for the non-magnet schools within the system?"
That is a question that Superintendent Thompson needs to answer not just for the State Department of Education, but even more importantly for the people of Montgomery County.
The basic academic integrity of the Montgomery Public School System has been called into question. The public needs a thorough and sincere explanation of what will be done to restore public trust in the system.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at email@example.com.