Hempstead High School on Aug. 22, 2013.

Hempstead High School on Aug. 22, 2013. Credit: Barry Sloan

ALBANY -- The Hempstead Union Free School District routinely and improperly boosted students' grades from failing to passing, according to a State Education Department audit that for the first time quantifies the scope of the grade changes.

The audit, discussed Monday by a State Board of Regents committee, found district employees changed 2,225 quarterly and final grades for 1,294 high school students. The district could provide reasons for only 8 percent of the changes. The audit covered the 2012-13 school year.

Newsday reported last year that the district had rounded some grades up to passing. But the Education Department audit provides the first accounting of the total number of changes, both up and down.

"The district has a longstanding informal policy in which grades ranging from 61 to 64 have been changed to 65," the audit stated.

Hempstead has long trailed other Nassau and Suffolk county districts in performance, yet spends $3,400 more per student than the average Long Island district, Regent Roger Tilles said Monday.

"It is clearly a dysfunctional school," Tilles said of Hempstead High. "This district is clearly failing them."

He urged the board to take significant action, just short of a state takeover of the high school. The state could appoint a "distinguished educator" as a state monitor, who with district cooperation would work to hasten improvements.

"We have to take action when you see kids falling in a hole year after year," Tilles said. "They just don't have a chance."

"To me, it's all about quality of leadership, quality of teachers, quality of curriculum and governance," Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch said.

The Board of Regents Monday ordered an investigation into the district over widespread grade inflation and will consider more changes in how the district operates.

State Education Commissioner John King Jr. said he will deliver a plan for action, while officials said the department's audit unit will dig deeper into grade inflation and spending in Hempstead.

Education Department officials said grade inflation and any misuse of state funds will be examined for possible criminal action.

Hempstead board president Betty Cross did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

In March, the district said it had drafted polices to address the grade inflation issue based on the state's recommendations.

District Superintendent Susan Johnson said in December that in many cases no reasons for grade changes were provided by employees who made them. She referred to an "old district practice" of rounding up grades of 63 or 64 to passing. That practice was revived in May 2013, Johnson said.

The audit of student test scores found many of the students whose grades were raised were out of school for disciplinary or medical reasons and their grades were increased by "home school tutors."

Johnson said the policy for students being tutored at home for disciplinary or medical reasons is for the classroom teacher to provide a "low or minimal grade," which is replaced by the grade from the home school tutor. Insertion "of the home-school tutor's grade was the grade change," Johnson said.

The district, with nearly 6,000 students, long has struggled to raise its graduation rate, which in 2011-12 was 38 percent, the lowest of any of Long Island's 124 public school districts, the audit said. In 2012-13, Hempstead High graduated 222 students, according to the audit.

Boosting grades could improve the district's graduation rate. Student grades also can be factors in job evaluations for teachers and principals.

During the audit period, the state considered whether to add Hempstead to its list of districts requiring immediate improvement.

While auditors did not detail how many of the 2,225 grade changes boosted students from failing to passing, they said they examined a sample of 180 students who had had their grades changed in 2012-13. Of the 180, 115 -- 64 percent -- had one or more grades changed from failing to passing.

The sampled students had a combined 463 grade changes, and 220 -- 48 percent -- were from failing to passing. Other grade changes did not affect whether the students passed or failed the course."We did receive copies of memorandums, which date from June 1999 to June 2009, from district administrators to teachers instructing them not to use any grades ranging from 61 to 64," the audit said. "We noted that these memorandums did not constitute formal Board approved District policy."

The school board met in "July 2013, just prior to our audit and adopted a policy barring such a practice," the audit said.

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