The Hempstead school district has been systematically changing some students' failing final course grades into passing grades.
The district has routinely lifted final course grades of 63 or 64 to a passing score of 65 for all students in grades 6-12, according to district Deputy Superintendent Julius Brown. One district source involved in changing the grades estimated as many as 800 grades were changed this school year.
The decades-long policy was designed to prevent confrontations between teachers, parents and students, and to give students a better chance of attending college, Brown said.
Brown added that rounding up grades is standard public school practice. But other Long Island education officials said that is not the case and that the policy appears unique to Hempstead.
Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the State Board of Regents, said he was informed of the grade-changing by a high school administrator and forwarded the information to the State Education Department for investigation.
The Nassau County district attorney's office contacted and interviewed one staff member involved in the grade-changing, two Hempstead sources said. A state Education Department investigator was in the district last week, the two sources said.
Spokesmen for the district attorney's office and the Education Department declined to comment.
Hempstead, which has nearly 6,000 students, is consistently one of the lowest-performing districts on Long Island. Its graduation rate in 2011-12 was 38 percent, the lowest among the Island's 124 public school districts.
The state Education Department is reviewing its decision not to classify Hempstead High School as a "priority school" -- a short list of the state's lowest-performing schools -- according to a May 15 letter sent to the district.
Four high-ranking Hempstead officials said the district's policy of lifting grades was designed to boost the graduation rate.
Brown denied that and described the practice as common.
"I don't know of anyone who doesn't do it," he said. "Our grading practices and policies are consistent with laws and the authorities that are vested with the school district and the superintendent."
Asked to identify other districts that change grades in similar fashion, Brown cited Uniondale and Malverne.
Officials from both districts denied Brown's contention.
"Uniondale School District does not round grades," spokeswoman Donna Janine wrote in an email. "If a student earns a 63 grade, that is the grade the student receives."
Two past presidents of the New York State Council of School Superintendents -- Jericho Superintendent Henry Grishman and Rockville Centre Superintendent William Johnson -- said they had never heard of a district enforcing such a policy.
"It's not a policy across the board that just any student that gets a 63 or 64 gets bumped up to 65," Johnson said.
While noting that grades are not automatically increased, Malverne school district officials said parents could appeal a child's grade and the principal would review such requests on a case-by-case basis. Grishman and Johnson say that is common practice.
Brown said the systematic changing of grades had been district policy for decades, and that it was done automatically by computer more than 10 years ago. Reginald Stroughn, the high school's principal from 2003 to 2009, said grades were changed that way during his tenure. Brown said teachers entered the grade changes manually over a two-year break while the new grade-recording system was installed.
The current controversy began earlier this month when Hempstead director of technology Carlos Ramirez was ordered by Brown in an email dated June 13 to amend the district's new computer score-recording program so that grades of 63 and 64 were automatically recorded as 65. Ramirez, who started work in Hempstead in 2010, expressed reluctance to do so and called the policy "inappropriate" in an email exchange with Brown and seven other officials obtained by Newsday.
"I just want to remind all administrators addressed in this email that I have been directed to perform this [sic] changes in our Student Management System and I personally consider the process inappropriate due to the lack of policy and procedure in regards grade changes processed massively . . . ," Ramirez wrote in the June 17 email.
Ramirez sent the emails and a letter spelling out his concerns about the policy to state Education Commissioner John King and to Nassau BOCES Superintendent Thomas Rogers. In the letter, Ramirez complained about being ordered by Brown to give a teacher and an outside consultant access to the PowerSchool grade-recording system and the ability to change grades, calling it an "opportunity to manipulate school data."
Ramirez wrote that he was worried about accountability.
"After business hours and later at night as shown in the log, changes to individual grades to 65 (passing mark) were done using DDA/DDE which is a feature in PowerSchool that prevents full tracking of the actual student records change on the logs," Ramirez wrote in the letter.
Rogers said Nassau BOCES "neither confirms nor denies" that it is investigating.
Brown said the state has a duty to investigate any allegations but said Hempstead has done nothing wrong. He declined to label the district's practice as changing grades, instead calling it "district policy."
"I have no concept how many grades that are impacted by this policy and practice," he wrote in a text message. "We have never run such a report to determine which students or how many students impacted by this practice; as that would suggest we would be attempting to affect student results instead of merely applying District policy."
Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School: 1,345
Academy of Music & Art (grades 9-11): 403
Academy of Math & Science (grades 9-11): 402
Academy of Business & Law (grades 9-11): 402
Source: Hempstead School District