Illegal Grade-Fixing Allegations Swirl at DPS

Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Detroit Free Press, February 10, 2011

Science teacher Marjorie Pasqualle struggled in her classroom at Detroit’s Durfee Elementary last year–and so did her sixth- and seventh-grade students.

She endured taunts and threats, one student slapped her face and, in a chaotic atmosphere where students weren’t learning, she turned in 94 D’s and F’s for June report cards, records show.

But documents also show that the bad grades Pasqualle gave to students were changed to C’s on report cards and computerized student records–and without her consent, she said.

The extent of illegal grade-fixing in Detroit Public Schools is difficult to gauge, but teachers, union officials and others say they know it happens, particularly in low-performing schools under pressure to show academic progress.

Teacher Mary Helen D’Angelo said a principal passed about three dozen fifth-graders who failed the MEAP test and her summer math class in 2009. “She told me, ‘It must’ve been something wrong with your teaching,'” D’Angelo recalled recently. “They came to me with second-grade skills.”

Altering records is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500, up to two years in jail and suspension of a teaching certificate.

The Durfee grade-changing matter has been referred to the DPS inspector general in response to questions from the Free Press.

“Anyone who changes a grade is history,” said Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager for DPS.

DPS teachers feel the pressure to pass failing students

Teachers who allege illegal grade-fixing in Detroit Public Schools say the pressure to give passing grades to struggling students is ever-present.

High failure rates reflect badly on a school, but kids who are passed along wind up losing in the end: DPS has a 59% graduation rate and some of the nation’s lowest test scores–partly because of the practice of promoting failing students to the next grade, teachers and experts say.

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Yet grades for as many as 94 science students at Durfee Elementary were changed on student records to passing last year, according to documents obtained by the Free Press. DPS officials are investigating the matter in response to questions from the Free Press, said Jennifer Mrozowski, a spokeswoman for the district.

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Among those who say their grades were changed for dozens of students is DPS teacher Mary Helen D’Angelo. She said she was teaching fifth-grade math in summer school at what is now Fisher Magnet Upper Academy in 2009 when her decision to fail most of her 40 students was reversed.

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Hard to prove

There is no way to gauge how often grade-fixing occurs because it is difficult to prove and not widely researched or tracked on a state level or even nationally.

Teacher Tracy Arneau said she failed four first-graders in 2006 who were struggling readers, but the principal promoted them to second grade anyway. By fall, two of the students were placed back in first grade because they were struggling.

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Administrators and schools with low scores, high failure rates and low graduation rates face dire consequences.

The federal No Child Left Behind law and a state reform law passed in 2009 encourage districts to remove principals and restructure or close schools where students do not meet standards. In 2009, about a quarter of DPS schools were assigned new principals after Bobb fired 33 principals at low-performing schools.

Last year, Bobb replaced the principals and staffs at most of the 51 so-called priority schools he identified for reform. Most of the priority schools had the worst academic achievement levels, including graduation rates below 60%. Principals district-wide also were given new performance-based contracts.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. education secretary who was part of the movement to create No Child Left Behind, said educators are more prone to break rules when under pressure to meet standards.

“People do funny things when they don’t want to be fired, they don’t want their schools to close and for money,” Ravitch said.

DPS teacher Marjorie Pasqualle, who taught sixth- and seventh-grade science classes at Durfee Elementary last year, said her grades were changed after she submitted computerized grade sheets in the spring that contained 68 F’s and 26 D’s.

A grade of C appeared on report cards that were sent home in June with poorly performing students from her classes, records show. {snip}

Pasqualle said she suspects a school official made the changes, but she cannot prove who did it. {snip}

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Pasqualle, 62, said she never confronted anyone about the grades, partly because the school’s administration already had deemed her an unsatisfactory teacher, forcing her to retire in July or be fired.

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The students who passed

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Among Pasqualle’s students, children who got C’s on their report cards in June included:

* Students who missed the science class more than 20 times in one semester, and one who missed the class 39 times during the year.

* One student who missed the class 37 times, got F’s in science all year from Pasqualle and is accused in a police report of simple assault against Pasqualle.

* Students who failed other core classes such as math, social studies and English.

* Thirteen sixth-graders–ages 12 to 14–who already were one or two grade levels behind, according to internal records

* Students who got F’s in Pasqualle’s class in all prior marking periods.

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Pasqualle said there is a constant fear in DPS that if too many students receive failing grades, they will flee the shrinking school district, costing the coffers $7,660 per student.

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Parents outraged

Katrina Turner of Detroit, who saw a copy of her son’s computerized student report recently, was shocked by the grades. She said her son struggled at Durfee and earned mostly failing grades last year. Pasqualle’s grading sheets show she gave him an F in June. But his student records on the DPS computer system show that he earned a C in science in June.

“So what? You can’t trust what the report cards say now?” Turner said.

Detroiter Cynthia Pickett was angered, saying her grandson was socially promoted at Durfee after missing most of the spring semester last year.

Attendance records and grading sheets confirm he missed the last month and a half of school and that he earned F’s in Pasqualle’s science class. However, a C in science appears on his student records within the DPS computer system.

“He wasn’t going, so what was he learning?” she said.

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In 2009 at Durfee, only 33% of eighth-graders passed the science MEAP exam compared with 76% of students statewide. Across the district, eighth-graders who took the science portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress earned the worst scores in 2009 among 18 large cities.

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Misconduct concerns

Changing a student’s grade without consulting a teacher is falsification of school records, said Sue Ellen Eisenberg, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who specializes in labor lawsuits.

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The manner in which the grades were changed at Durfee also constitutes a violation of the teachers union contract, said Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

In order for a principal to order a grade change, “the grading teacher must be given an opportunity to respond,” according to the DFT contract. A grade change form also must be signed by the teacher, Johnson said.

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