Audit Turns Acclaim into Outrage at Preuss

Review finds extensive grade inaccuracies at charter school

San Diego Union-Tribune
December 12, 2007

By Eleanor Yang Su and Maureen Magee

The academic reputation of the nationally recognized charter school at UC San Diego is being called into question by a new audit showing widespread grade tampering and instances where students received credit for courses they never took.

About 420 grades at the Preuss School have been inaccurately recorded in the past six years, reflecting a system with insufficient internal controls and pressure on teachers to pass students, according to the audit, to be released today.

The findings are a significant setback for a school overseen by the San Diego Unified School District that has been lauded for providing a rigorous education to poor and minority students.

“It is with outrage that we look at mistakes that were made,” said Chancellor Marye Anne Fox of the University of California San Diego. “It’s quite clear we’re going to make changes.”

The UCSD audit, which reviewed 190 student transcripts and included interviews with about 28 current and former Preuss employees, concluded that Principal Doris Alvarez and a former counselor “likely had knowledge of and/or directed the inappropriate grade changes.”

Alvarez, who has served as principal since the school opened in 1999, was placed on administrative leave in September. Administrators would not say when or if she will return.

Alvarez did not return a call seeking comment last night, but she told auditors she had no knowledge of inappropriate grade changes.

The investigation was launched in May at the request of the chairman of the Preuss board of directors, UCSD professor Cecil Lytle. He said claims of misconduct came from several people, including former teachers.
Among the report’s key findings:

  • Seventy-six percent of the 190 transcripts reviewed contained one or more grade discrepancies or errors. The audit said that 427 grades were either inappropriately changed or didn’t reflect teachers’ records.

  • In 72 percent of cases, grade changes improved a student’s academic standing. In the remainder of cases, the inaccuracies had a negative or no impact, leaving officials to believe some changes may have been made because of human error or confusion over the school’s grading software programs.

  • Several former and current teachers interviewed said Alvarez and/or the former counselor pressured them to provide students with extraordinary accommodations to improve their grades.

  • In some cases, students were either inappropriately given credit for Advanced Placement courses or had failing AP grades inappropriately replaced with online or summer courses.

  • In a handful of instances, failing grades were omitted from transcripts.

UCSD leaders, many of whom helped establish the school, noted their disappointment over the findings and acknowledged their fault in the process yesterday.

“We may not have had all the practices and procedures in place,” said Lytle, who helped create the school. Lytle added that some of his outrage over the problems are directed at the university for its inattention.

“For many on campus, there’s disappointment that we hadn’t provided that structure to make sure the high quality is maintained in every facet of the operations of Preuss School,” Fox said.

Preuss serves about 780 students in grades six through 12 and runs on a budget of $7.8 million annually, most of it from the state and about $1 million from UCSD.

Fox and other administrators outlined several proposed actions, including hiring a consultant to help improve the school’s policies and operations, fixing the grade recording system, reviewing Advanced Placement courses to assure that AP standards are maintained and examining the college records of Preuss graduates. More than 90 percent of Preuss graduates are admitted to four-year colleges or universities.

UCSD officials said they have not yet determined what, if any, disciplinary actions they will take. Phil Ensberg, a senior adviser and Alvarez’s son-in-law, will return from administrative leave on Monday.

The audit could stain the reputation of the school, which last week was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s top 10 high schools.

“It is a blemish on their reputation,” said Paula Cordeiro, dean of the school of leadership and education sciences at the University of San Diego. “I think there’s enormous pressure on schools when you start getting ranked and when you start getting noticed.”

But Cordeiro added that she believes the school can recover if its board takes swift and strong action.

Some experts said the timing is problematic, especially for students applying for college this year.

“It’s a very serious problem for current applicants,” said Steven Roy Goodman, an education consultant who has written a book on the college admissions process. “The most precious document in admissions is the transcript. When a transcript is compromised, that makes the university question the rest of the file the student submitted, and what else the high school submitted.”

Although UCSD officials say all transcripts of Preuss seniors were corrected before they were sent to colleges, the perception of compromised integrity could be problematic, Goodman said. The impact will be at colleges that hear about news of the grade tampering, he said, and those that traditionally accept many Preuss students.

Those fears were echoed by some Preuss students yesterday, many of whom said they were surprised by the findings.

“I am worried about colleges hearing about this and not taking us as serious as they did in the past,” said Yvette Magaña, a 10th-grader from Encanto in southeastern San Diego. “I didn’t think (the grade changes) was that widespread.”

Magaña and others acknowledged the pressure they feel to succeed but said they work hard for their grades.

“I think it’s terrible (grades were changed),” said Chris Khem, a senior from City Heights. “Everyone I know who has good grades works really hard for them. It’s a good school.”

Despite the fears, Lytle said applications are up 50 percent this year and visiting recruiters from universities say the school is still one of the best in the state.

<< Back to Steve in the News