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Hundreds of Grade Changes at Calif. School Spark Questions

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A southern California high school that prided itself on its tough requirements and the academic prowess of its students has acknowledged that hundreds of grades were altered in violation of state regulations.

But officials in Orange County's Brea Olinda unified district are still trying to unravel exactly how the practice began and who was behind it. And they still must resolve what actions to take against current employees who were involved in changing the grades.

"We need to find out what happened, explain to the public what happened, and insure the public that it won't happen again," said Todd Spitzer, a school board member. "We hope to put this to bed in the next couple of weeks."

Located in an upper-middle class section of northern Orange County, Brea Olinda High School is the only high school in the 5,700-student district.

From D's to P's

Although California requires 200 credits for graduation, Brea Olinda students must earn 240 to satisfy district requirements--the highest in Orange County, said Superintendent Peggy Lynch.

The extra effort has paid off in years past. Nearly 90 percent of the district's graduates go on to postsecondary education.

But the introduction of the stringent standards may have spurred the grade changes, investigators found.

As far as independent investigators have determined, the questionable practices probably began in 1990 and coincided with a decision to increase credits from 230 to 240. A majority of students were also taking a rigorous college-preparatory mathematics sequence--algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and trigonometry.

At the same time, there was a large staff turnover at the school that included the principal, most of the counseling staff, and the registrar of student grades.

Most of the altered grades were in math. A student might get a D in algebra, for instance, and be given an opportunity to repeat the course. The second time around, the letter grade would be dropped and replaced with "pass."

At the same time, investigators found that some students received double credit for taking the same course twice.

Grades Restored

The situation first came to light when a teacher filed a grievance charging that grades had been changed without her consent, a violation of state law. The former superintendent, who has since retired, apparently learned about the practices last fall.

But it was not until May that all school board members were informed.

The district hired an outside auditor to look into the matter, along with investigations by lawyers from the Orange County education department. Those investigations turned up some 300 current students whose transcripts were altered.

"It is beyond dispute that the grade changes ... violated the provisions of [the] education code," the lawyers wrote in their report, which was released last month. "However, our investigattion did not discover conclusive evidence that any Brea Olinda High School employee intentionally violated" the law.

The school board has ordered that the original grades be restored to the students' transcripts. Seniors, however, were allowed to graduate without earning 240 credits, although they had to meet the state's 200-credit requirement.

"The board felt we had an obligation to protect those students because they received poor information," said Mr. Spitzer.

The board, in conjunction with Superintendent Lynch, who assumed the post in July, also began adopting procedures that were endorsed by the outside investigators.

The changes included writing policies and procedures for all issues dealing with grades, reviewing all computer software, clarifying job descriptions, and developing a school culture that encourages staff members to bring issues to the administration.

Still to be resolved, though, is what to do about staff members who participated in changing the grades. At a school board meeting last month, some residents expressed anger that no one had been disciplined.

But while some members of the community claim there was an attempt to cover up the scandal, others question the need to air the district's dirty laundry in public.

"There are some people who believe we have done way more than we need to," Ms. Lynch said. "There will be some people who believe we have not done enough."

Mr. Spitzer, a deputy district attorney, believes there was no choice but to go public, even though the school's reputation has been tarnished. "We take responsibility for what we have done," he said.

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