Investigators Into Westbury High's Grade Adjustments Call for an Overhaul of HISD Procedures

Let’s see. How many ways did grading go wrong at Westbury High? An almost unbelievable lot, according to the Houston ISD Office of Internal Audit, which conducted an investigation related to the grade-fixing accusations leveled against the school’s principal, who has been fired, in their release of an interim report..

To begin with: The associate – long-term substitute – teacher in one classroom was pretty much left on her own. She had a college degree but does not have state-issued teaching certification and has no other local permit issued by the district. She never met with the department chair in her subject; instead, she “pulled the reading curriculum from files located in the classroom.” She wasn’t allowed to use the automated grading system software program and so kept her own notes.

At the request of a parent who said her child had special needs, the sub "implemented modified instruction for an individual student” without checking with school personnel to verify the need. She kept student information on her personal computer and “allowed the news media to view the computer screen containing student data.” (We missed that unveiling ) She also shared details of the students’ personnel records with a member of the public.
The so-called teacher of record for her class was actually Principal Jason Catchings, although he wasn’t certified in this classroom’s subject and in fact, while supposedly the teacher of record for 30 classes (an impossible task; how would he sit in to monitor all those classes?), was not certified in 25 of those classes.

Catchings told the sub to raise failing grades to 80; his Austin-based attorney, Tiger Hanner, as we previously reported, says Catchings was just following the instructions of Justin Fuentes, HISD's chief high schools officer.
Looking for guidance in HISD’s own rules and regulations literature provides little help, as the auditors found, since some of its language is at best murky and at worst contradicts itself.

“In HISD, a person who does not have a college degree or appropriate certification cannot officially assign grades for students, even if that person is actively participating in instruction. There must be a teacher of record with appropriate certification or a valid permit to assign and be responsible for the student’s grades,” the policy reads.

But the last sentence in this section says: “A teaching assistant, volunteer or hourly lecturer without a degree or appropriate teacher certification may work with an official teacher of record in participating in instruction as long as the teacher of record gives the official grade.”

And if neither the teacher nor the principal could assign grades, then the kids in that class were in a special kind of limbo — which is exactly how the students in that one class are approaching the immediate end of this school year. Scramble time for  HISD.

Investigators interviewed HISD staff and “we noted various verbal interpretations whether or not associate teachers may assign grades. There is currently no written policy or written guidance that confirms explicitly whether associate teachers in general may or may not issue grades for students.”

The audit team recommended that without a teacher of record, a grade of incomplete should be entered for students until a certified teacher of record could be hired or assigned to the class.

The report also noted that there had been “an excessive number of long-term associate teachers” and that Catchings didn’t go to the district’s human resources pool for certified teachers but picked his own. Parents were not notified as required by state law that their children’s teachers weren’t certified. And then the audit report took a shot at campus-based decision-making (long a hallmark in HISD) and said, “Autonomy allowed to campuses in hiring and dismissal of staff can be detrimental to the district’s core values and strategic objectives related to learning and achievement.”

Investigators noted that several HISD employees they talked with cited “fear of retaliation” if they reported concerns. But as the report noted, “These personnel elected to disclose confidential student information protection by FERPA regulations to members of the public and exposed themselves to disciplinary action. Employee protection cannot apply when personnel disregard federal law.”

All of this has been handed over to Superintendent Terry Grier and his administration for a change in policies and procedures and a better explanation of what those policies and procedures actually are.  Guess they'll have the summer to work on it. 

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