Interim Director of Schools Chris Henson: Help us uncover the truth in academic allegations

The below email was sent to all Metro Schools employee email addresses on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015.

To All Metro Schools Employees:

By now, you have likely seen or heard about the investigative reports airing on News Channel 5 by reporter Phil Williams. We are seeking your assistance in uncovering the truth about the allegations being made in his stories. Please see the bottom of this email for instructions.

The first two stories Mr. Williams aired allege that certain high school students are being improperly un-enrolled from courses with state-mandated End-of-Course exams mid-semester after performing poorly on predictive tests. Mr. Williams’ sources have told him this is a strategy to avoid having low-performing students’ EOC scores count against individual schools’ performance data. These allegations have been made specifically against Hunters Lane and Pearl-Cohn high schools.

We have said this to Mr. Williams, but we want to say this directly to you, our employees: We take these allegations extremely seriously, and will take immediate corrective action, if these allegations are found to be true in any regard.

Mr. Williams says that school employees, including several that would not agree to be interviewed on camera, have shared numerous examples with him that serve as evidence that this type of impropriety is in fact taking place. We have repeatedly asked him for copies of the documentation in his possession. In response, he has shared only limited information with us. In fact, he has provided only one specific student name for us to investigate.

We have launched an extensive internal review of district data to get definitive answers on whether or not the allegations being made in Mr. Williams’ stories are true, including a review of transaction logs to look for mid-semester course changes. This is intensive, time-consuming work. To expedite this work, we ask that if you believe academic impropriety of any kind is taking place in our schools – but especially the type of actions detailed in Mr. Williams’ stories – to elevate these concerns to district leadership so that we can properly investigate and address them.

School employees are encouraged to report concerns to their principals and then elevate the issue to the district office, if you believe it is not appropriately addressed at the school level. The district leaders for each tier are listed below. They can be contacted using a dial-by-name directory by calling (615) 259-3282.

  • Aimee Wyatt, Executive Officer for High Schools
  • Antoinette Williams, Executive Officer for Middle Schools
  • Vanessa Garcia, Executive Officer for Elementary Schools

If you do not feel comfortable using these reporting channels that are regularly available to you, we encourage you to share the information without fear of retaliation or punishment of any kind by reporting specific details anonymously to the Department of Internal Audit in Metro Government.

The Metropolitan Nashville Government Office of Internal Audit provides employees with a means to anonymously communicate any fraud, waste, or abuse concerns. You can contact the Metro Nashville Hotline 24 hours a day toll-free at 1-855-252-7606 or at, use organization name ‘Metro Nashville’. Any information you report will be shared with us to further investigate, but you will have the security of sharing this information with complete anonymity.

Our goal is to get to the bottom of these concerns as quickly as possible, address any issues that are identified, or clear the air if no problems are identified. We are here to serve our students first and foremost, and if a disservice is taking place against our students, we want to know about it and correct it. You work for Metro Schools because you care about improving the lives of the young people we serve. Please make a proper report of any issue that goes against our district policies or values.

Thank you for your service to our students and their families. If you would like more information about the investigative reports by Mr. Williams, you can read a detailed account of our responses to him to date online at


Chris Henson
Interim Director of Schools

Statement to Phil Williams on Pearl-Cohn End-of-Course Exams – Nov. 3, 2015

As explained in our statement yesterday, district policy allows a student to take “credit recovery” after failing a semester of a course and this practice is supported by the Tennessee Department of Education. The story you aired last night makes claims that students are being placed in credit recovery without having failed the course first, although after repeated requests you have not shared the documentation with us that has led you to this conclusion.

Also, you have asked for an analysis of an increase in the number of students enrolled in “independent study” courses between the fall and spring semesters at Pearl Cohn High School during the 2014-15 school year. Based on your previous reporting, we are making the assumption that your story tonight will draw a conclusion that the students enrolled in independent study courses at Pearl Cohn last spring were improperly placed in credit recovery.

Here are the facts you should know:

  • Independent study can be used for credit recovery, but it may also be used for a variety of other benefits to the student, such as dual enrollment Nashville State courses online, online ACT prep or other virtual classes.
  • At Pearl Cohn, 38 students were enrolled in independent study courses in the fall and an additional 65 students were enrolled in the spring.
  • A sample review of the 65 additional students indicates that they were enrolled in independent study to take credit recovery for a course they had failed in the fall.
  • We conducted a separate review of students who passed EOC courses at Pearl Cohn in the fall of 2014. Of those, only three were not enrolled in the subsequent course in the spring. These three cases are described as follows:
    • A student who was taking courses while expelled from Pearl Cohn
    • A student with special needs whose IEP dictated a change in course sequence
    • A student who withdrew from the school and was not granted credit for any courses

Your story last night portrayed credit recovery as a program that forces students to get “information on their own.” This is not true. While the work is completed through online modules, every credit recovery course is taught by a certificated teacher. Schools use tutors at their discretion to provide additional support to the students. There are additional online resources used to support the instruction and the students are allowed to go through the units at their own pace.


Metro Schools’ Statement to Phil Williams on End-of-Course Exams – Nov. 2, 2015

Tonight, November 2, 2015, investigative reporter Phil Williams of News Channel 5 plans to air a story containing accusations about end-of-course exams in Metro Schools. Below is our full and detailed response to Phil, as well as a record of our communication with him during his reporting.

DOWNLOAD a PDF copy of this statement.

Beginning late in the week of October 19 and continuing throughout the week of October 26, there have been regular email and telephone conversations – often daily – to address your questions related to accusations that some Metro high schools are using various methods to avoid administering state-mandated End-of-Course (EOC) exams to certain students in order to inflate their performance data. As stated numerous times throughout these conversations, we take these accusations extremely seriously. We asked for evidence of specific wrong-doing in your possession so that the instances in question can be thoroughly investigated and to allow us to fully respond to your story.

Below is a comprehensive response to the questions you have posed thus far related to the “general EOC concerns” story you say is scheduled to air this evening, Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. This response includes questions and requests of us, along with a summary of how we have fulfilled them. Further responses may follow related to other specific concerns you plan to address in future stories.

General Statement on EOC Exams

Students are required to take all state-mandated EOC exams at the end of the second semester of a course regardless of when or how they complete the course. To determine if there is evidence of a wide-spread trend with students not completing the required EOCs, over the last week our Research and Evaluation department has been carefully reviewing transcript and EOC exam files for the most recent cohort of MNPS graduates.

Records reviewed to date indicate that there is no evidence of systematic avoidance of EOC exams. We have found a relatively small number of students who received a regular high school diploma in the spring of 2015 and who took EOC courses in our schools but do not appear to have ever attempted the EOC exam. The department went through several years of files in order to track students’ course and test history. Our investigation is focused on the courses for which the Tennessee Department of Education establishes accountability targets, called Annual Measureable Objectives (AMOs), which requires each high school to have a 95% participation rate on EOC exams.

With a 2015 graduating class of 4,221 students, they should have collectively taken 16,884 exams with AMOs over the course of their high school careers. Of those 16,884 exams, the district lacks a test record for only 231 or 1.37%. These cases appear to be spread out and not unusually high for any particular school. All high schools fall within the 1-2% range. Given an average daily attendance rate of 93%, there will be students that never make up an EOC. There may also be some who took the EOC at another time outside of MNPS or whose student ID was incorrectly coded on an EOC answer sheet and who do not match our course enrollment files.

The 231 missed EOC exams are broken down as follows: There were 44 students missing an Algebra I EOC test record and 10 students marked absent. An answer sheet is supposed to be turned in for every student enrolled in the course, and those that do not test or make up the test should be coded as absent. It is likely that many, if not most, of those students missing an EOC document were absent during testing and an answer sheet marked “absent” was not submitted. There were 32 missing an Algebra II EOC and 32 more marked absent. For English II, 26 had no test record and 16 were shown as absent. There were 35 missing for English III and 36 absent.

If NewsChannel 5 is in possession of documentation that contradicts the district’s findings of its own internal review described above, Metro Schools requests to be given access to the documentation immediately to allow us to thoroughly investigate the claims. Likewise, if former or current MNPS employees are in possession of documentation that indicates a systematic attempt to inflate performance data for individual schools, those individuals are urged to bring their concerns forward to district leadership so that they can be properly investigated. We have no record of an open complaint of this nature.

Use of Credit Recovery in High Schools

Metro Nashville Public Schools has made personalized learning the focus of our instructional practice. Our goal is to prepare every student for success in college and career, which personalized learning allows us to do. Personalized learning involves teachers meeting students where they are, regularly monitoring their progress, and moving students forward only when they’re able to demonstrate mastery of the content. This includes intervening as early as possible when a student’s performance indicates he or she is failing to master the content of a course.

As part of this approach, credit recovery is offered to high school students who fail a semester of a course. If a student fails a course in the fall to the degree that grade-averaging the two semesters is unlikely to result in the student passing the course as a whole, the student is given the option to take the fall course through credit recovery before proceeding to the spring course. For example, a student who fails “Algebra I Fall” will be given the option to retake the fall course of Algebra I during the spring semester. The student will then take “Algebra I Spring” during the summer semester or subsequent fall semester. All attempts are made to place the student in “Algebra 1 Spring” during the following summer or fall. If there is a scheduling conflict, the student may have to wait to the following spring to take the spring course.

It is in the best interest of the student to take this approach because if he or she has not mastered the content of a fall course, he or she will be ill-prepared to succeed in the spring course, which builds on the content knowledge from the fall. The decision to enter into credit recovery is made by the student and his or her parent/guardian in consultation with the teacher and the student’s counselor.

If a student takes a spring course during the summer or fall semester, he or she will take the EOC at that time. Meaning a student who fails Algebra I this fall may take the Algebra I EOC in July or December of 2016, depending on when he or she completes both courses.

The opinion that this approach to instruction in intended solely to inflate EOC scores is misguided. This is a standard practice used by school districts in our state. The fact that the state’s testing calendar allows for EOCs to be taken in the spring and summer is evidence that this practice is supported by the state. The state does not use EOCs to measure the academic performance of a specific grade level. Unlike grades K through 8, high school courses are offered to students based on their individual academic level. For example, an advanced student may take Algebra I in eighth grade instead of ninth grade, in which case the EOC score is calculated into the middle school’s math data, rather than the high school the student goes on to attend. Similarly, students who take AP classes do not take EOC exams for those subjects, therefore their academic performance is not included in the high school’s overall EOC data. EOC data is intended to reflect the high school’s ability to successfully teach the state standards in main subject areas, regardless of when the student takes the course during his or her time in high school. There is a clear disincentive for high schools to unnecessarily delay a student’s promotion among courses since the state calculates a high school’s graduation rate based on “on-time” graduates, defined as students who graduate within four years and one summer of starting high school. Because all students are required to earn four math credits and four English credits, when they are delayed from completing one of those required credits it risks requiring the student to take more than four years to graduate.

Most importantly, our focus is on helping students succeed. Ultimately, our goal is to prepare every student for college and career. If a student requires extra time to successfully master the content of a course, we believe the student should be allowed that time. Forcing students to progress in course schedules when they are not prepared to understand or master the content would equate to setting our students up for failure.    

Use of Content Recovery in High Schools

In addition to “credit recovery,” which is a student re-taking a failed semester of a course, Metro Schools also offers “content recovery” courses to support students who are struggling with the foundational skills needed to succeed in an EOC course.

For example, the district offers “Algebra I A,” a content recovery course to support students enrolled in Algebra I. The Algebra I A course may cover basic math skills, such as fractions, based on what underlining knowledge is needed for a student to understand the Algebra lessons. Similar classes are offered for English courses, and are listed as “English I CAR,” with “CAR” standing for Content Area Reading.

It is district practice for students to be enrolled in content recovery courses either simultaneously or prior to taking an EOC course. A content recovery course cannot be taken in place of an EOC course. Although students do earn credits for content recovery courses, the credits do not qualify for the math or English credits required for graduation. Additionally, enrollment in a content recovery course does not negate a student’s requirement to take the EOC exam at the end of the second semester of the EOC course.

Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School

  • You claim:
    • Pearl-Cohn has removed students from EOC exam classes and placed them in independent study courses as a means of avoiding their scores from affecting the school’s overall EOC score. You intimate in an email to Principal Sonia Stewart that direction for this practice is coming from supervision in the district office.
  • We responded:
    • Verbally on the phone the week of Oct. 26 explaining the district’s practice of remediation with students who are failing EOC classes. Further detail and explanation is provided above in the statements on credit recovery and content recovery.
  • You asked for:
    • All course offerings for Fall 2015 and number of students enrolled in each class
  • We fulfilled this request on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015

Stratford STEM Magnet School

  • You claim:
    • Students being “physically pulled” from EOC exam rooms or barred from entering EOC exam rooms.
  • We responded:
    • Verbally on the phone the week of Oct. 26 explaining Stratford’s EOC participation rate is consistently 95% or above for the last two years. The data is as follows:
      • Algebra I – 100% in 2014 and 97% in 2015
      • Algebra II – 95% in 2014 and 96% in 2015
      • English II – 98% in 2014 and 98% in 2015
      • English III – 96% in 2014 and 95% in 2015
    • We further explained that given the AMOs of 95% participation and average daily attendance of 93%, there is no incentive for principals to withhold students from EOC exams, lest they risk failing to meet the AMO.
  • You asked for:
    • All course offerings for Fall 2015 and number of students enrolled in each class
  • We fulfilled this request on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015.

Hunters Lane High School

  • You claim:
    • Hunters Lane has removed students from EOC exam classes and placed them in elective courses as a means of avoiding their scores from affecting the school’s overall EOC score.
  • We responded:
    • Verbally on the phone the week of Oct. 26 explaining the district’s practice of remediation with students who are failing EOC classes. Further detail and explanation is provided in the above statements on credit recovery and content recovery.
  • You asked for:
    • All course offerings for Fall 2015 and number of students enrolled in each class
  • We fulfilled this request on Oct. 30, 2015.
  • On Oct. 29, you asked for:
    • Insight into the situation of a specific Hunters Lane student who was allegedly removed from EOC courses she was passing.
  • Our response:
    • We are still investigating the details of this student, including a close look at the student’s data. However, there are extenuating circumstances surrounding this particular student, which are part of her private record and may not be discussed with you without a written waiver from the parent/guardian.

Maplewood High School

  • You claim:
    • Without knowing the specific mechanism being used, that students are being either pulled from EOC classes or prevented from taking EOC exams.
  • We responded:
    • Verbally on the phone the week of Oct. 26 explaining the district’s practice of remediation with students who are failing EOC classes. Further detail and explanation is provided in the above statements on credit recovery and content recovery.
  • You claim:
    • A source reported to you seeing an email from Jay Steele giving direction in this practice.
  • We responded:
    • Verbally on the phone the week of Oct. 26 that no such email is known to exist, but that it could have been confused with an email sent by Aimee Wyatt on Feb. 11, 2014, to high school principals giving guidance on how to use credit recovery for course remediation. You were provided a copy of this email.
  • You asked for:
    • All course offerings for Fall 2015 and number of students enrolled in each class
  • We fulfilled this request on Oct. 30, 2015.

Nashville’s conversation on ACT scores is misleading

With all the recent conversation about ACT scores, you would think the facts would be well established, but we keep reading ACT stories that report the same mistakes. Here are the facts.

Even though the average score in Tennessee and in Nashville remain well below what they should be — and what they will be — strong growth is happening. In Nashville, we saw big gains in the ACT this year, bigger gains than Tennessee saw as a whole. In fact, we were one of the top ten districts in the state for growth and earned 5’s—the top score—for value added. On top of that, Metro students averaged an ACT score almost a full point higher than projections.

That is huge news.

Why? These projections were made four years ago when these students were about to enter high school. That means our high school instruction has improved a great deal over the last four years.

  • Projected Mean Score: 17.49
  • Actual Mean Score: 18.43

But it’s still not good enough. We want every student to score a 21 or better on the ACT.

Let’s compare Tennessee’s average ACT score to that of Massachusetts:

  • MA – 24.1 (the highest in the nation)
  • TN – 19.7 (fourth from the bottom in the nation)

Looks pretty dim. But now let’s compare where those scores are coming from in those same two states:

  • MA – A quarter of students tested: Those headed to college who choose to take the ACT (and pay for it, study for it, etc).
  • TN – All students tested on the ACT: Everyone. Like Tennessee, the other states at the bottom of the rankings have universal testing of high schools students.

Are those playing fields level for comparison? No.

There are those who would argue that shouldn’t matter, that scores are too low in Nashville and Tennessee no matter how you look at it.

They are correct.

Every student in Tennessee takes the ACT. It’s not only used to measure our collective achievement, but it also gets them into a college mindset and assesses whether or not they are prepared for college.

That last part is where we have to do better. We have to better prepare our students for college. Anything less is a disservice to students in our schools.

Let’s go over that part again because it’s important.

No one in Metro Schools believes an 18.4 district average is acceptable. No one in Tennessee believes the 19.7 statewide average is acceptable. Anyone who thinks we are resting on the laurels of incremental score growth is wrong.

When you’re talking district-wide transformation, test scores are always the last piece to move – especially ACT scores. That’s because ACT scores measure the accumulated wealth of years of education.

The recurring obsession with ACT numbers does two things: it unfairly compares states with different populations taking the ACT and gives short shrift to the growth in student achievement and the hard work to make that happen.

The real solution is building stronger high school students who turn into stronger graduates. That starts as soon as they enter kindergarten.

Good thing, then, that we now have a district-level executive guiding instruction for K-12 as one, continuous whole. A unified vision for instruction at every grade level means elementary students will be better prepared for middle school. Middle schoolers will come to high school achieving at higher levels. And eleventh graders will score higher on the ACT.

Good thing, then, that we are moving our top experts in instruction into schools, where they can adapt and guide instruction for individual clusters, schools, classrooms and even students.

The transformation of Nashville’s public schools is ongoing and ever evolving. But it’s driven by – and has always been driven by – the same goal: across the board improvement in academic achievement for all students, by any measure.

Is the ACT important? Of course. Colleges use ACT scores for admissions decisions. Educators rely on them to assess how they are doing and how they can better prepare students for graduation.

But is it the end all, be all of the education conversation? No.

What should be the end all, be all of the education conversation? Everything leading up to the ACT.

ACT Now! Our plan to raise ACT scores across the district

Every high school student in Tennessee is required totake the ACT. Tennessee is one of just a handful of states with this requirement and while that is not always good for our public image – it perhaps puts statewide test scores below other states where only the best and brightest take the test – it is very good for our students. Some students who might not otherwise take the test are required to, giving them an additional college credential or even a HOPE scholarship.

We want all our high school students to score a bare minimum 21 on the ACT. Of course, we prepare them to reach much higher than that, but we set the minimum at 21 because that is when scholarships and financial aid to state schools are within reach. With a 21, many students can afford college.

This year’s ACT results for our district show we still have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.  In fact, we’ve advanced our scores at a faster rate than the rest of the state.

But it’s still not good enough. We need better results in a shorter amount of time. We need results like the ones at Hillwood High School.

In the short time since Hillwood principal Dr. Steve Chauncy started his ACT Now program, the percentage of his students scoring 21 or higher has risen nearly 10%. When you consider statewide gains are measured in tenths of a percent, that is a huge jump.

How did Hillwood do it? And how will Dr. Chauncy and the Hillwood team spread similar results district-wide?

  1. Practice, practice, practice
    Before students take the actual ACT in their junior year, they sit for up to six practice tests – one as freshmen, the PLAN test, two practice assessments as sophomores, and two as juniors. Those tests are as real as they come, often actual ACT exams from previous years given through a program called Learning Express. By the time they sit for the real thing, they know exactly what to expect.
  2. Targeted instruction
    Rather than teaching students how to take a test, data from these practice tests is used for targeted instruction in the classroom. Areas of need are identified for individual students, and lessons can be are tailored to those needs. That starts right away. Freshmen come into Hillwood carrying data from the EXPLORE test taken in middle school. That data is used to start building ACT college skills in freshmen seminar classes.
  3. Critical Thinking Classes
    All Hillwood sophomores take a Critical Thinking and Imaginative Writing course where they learn how to apply their knowledge to problem solving and real world scenarios. That helps work through tough questions like those on the ACT and the even tougher questions students will later address in college and in their careers.
  4. Adaptable Solutions for All Schools
    This program has been shared across the district to all zoned high schools. But not every high school is the same, so it is can be easily molded to fit a particular school’s needs, resources, and abilities. As schools find improvements, they will be incorporated into the ACT Now program so the district is in a cycle of continuous improvement.

Development for this program is far from over. We are going even deeper into the data, looking at individual questions on practice tests to identify the academic support students need and we are providing afterschool tutoring for juniors with support from HCA.

The program began at Hillwood in the fall of 2010 and is spreading so all our high schools see rapid growth and all students are college ready and eligible for scholarship dollars.

It’s Official: Metro Nashville Public Schools rates “Intermediate” status

District meets seven of nine benchmarks; student achievement grows

Metro Nashville Public Schools showed growth in achievement among all subgroups of students last year, placing the district in intermediate status – the second highest accountability category. The State Department of Education earlier today released district-level status for all Tennessee districts, including for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Under this new accountability framework, the top-performing districts are “Exemplary” while the bottom performing districts are in two “In Need of Improvement” categories; the remaining districts are in an intermediate category. Tennessee’s new accountability system replaces No Child Left Behind’s Annual Yearly Progress measures. Rather than expecting all districts to meet the same benchmarks year after year, the new system acknowledges that districts are starting from different places and rewards those that show the most growth. Under the new system, approximately 43% of districts were categorized as “In Need of Improvement” or “In Need of Subgroup Improvement.”

“These results show that thousands more of our students are performing at a higher level,” said Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register. “Tennessee standards are among the highest in the country and this new accountability system is real, it is holding districts to standards that are difficult but attainable.

“The growth we have seen this year is the result of a lot of hard work, of making changes to instructional practice, providing more professional development and meeting our students’ diverse needs. We want to accelerate that growth at all levels and close achievement gaps.”

The accountability system, adopted after Tennessee secured a waiver from part of NCLB earlier this year, looks to districts to increase achievement levels for all students and reduce achievement gaps that exist between certain groups. Metro Schools serves approximately one-third of the state’s English Learner students, as well approximately 12,000 Students with Disabilities. The district also serves more than 56,000 economically disadvantaged students, which is about 71% of total enrollment for last year.

Metro Schools’ students made significant academic progress in the 2011-12 school year and the district met the majority of Tennessee’s academic achievement targets. In 2010, Tennessee adopted new academic performance standards that are among the most demanding in the nation. Metro Schools have shown steady improvement against these higher standards.

Grade 3-8 TCAP Tests
% proficient/advanced
  2010 2011 2012 
Reading/Language Arts 33.9% 38.9% 42.1% 
Math 25.9% 32.2% 38.4%
Science 36.2% 38.8%  44.5%
High School End of Course Exams
% proficient/advanced
  2010 2011  2012 
Algebra I 28.7% 37.6% 41.8%
English II 47.4% 46.6%  48.7% 

In addition, the district made impressive improvement at every grade level on the TCAP writing assessment with nine out of ten middle and high school students scoring competent or better.

Writing Assessment
Competent or Higher
  2010 2011  2012 
Grade 5  77% 77% 81% 
Grade 8 86% 86% 90%
Grade 11 90% 88%  91%

With this new system, Metro Schools met seven of nine benchmarks. The district showed improvement but narrowly missed the set benchmark for third grade reading/language arts. The district also missed in the graduation rate, the one calculation that has a one-year lag. The state has changed its calculation of graduation rate from a 5-year calculation to a 4-year calculation. Many students served by Metro Schools, such as English Learners or Students with Disabilities, require five years to graduate and are not included in the district’s overall graduation rate. Last year, Metro Schools’ graduation rate was 76.2%, down from 82.9% under the 5-year calculation. The 2012 graduation rate is not available.

Under Tennessee’s new accountability framework, the top-performing districts are exemplary while the bottom performing districts are in two in need of improvement categories; the remaining districts are in an intermediate category.

“I appreciate the support of our Board of Education as we transform our district. We knew test scores would be the last thing to change and we are pleased to see this growth,” said Register. “We must continue to improve in all categories. Reducing the achievement gap among student groups is our most significant challenge.”

Individual student reports are in transit to the schools where students are assigned for the 2012-13 school year. Each school will send the reports home to families. The State of Tennessee has not yet released school-level data.