Grade-Fixing Charges Hit Acclaimed School
Audit spurs resignation of founding principal of charter school on the campus of UC-San Diego.
A San Diego charter school with a national reputation for success in preparing disadvantaged students for college has been hit by charges that school officials improperly changed student grades.
The founding principal of the Preuss School, an 8-year-old school affiliated with the University of California, San Diego, has resigned after an audit finding that she probably directed or knew about more than 400 inappropriate grade changes over six years.
More than three-quarters of transcripts reviewed by auditors contained one or more inaccurately recorded grades, a majority of which caused student records to look better than they really were.
The former principal, Doris Alvarez, strongly denies involvement in the grade changing. She also has questioned the competence of the auditors, who work for UC-San Diego, but said she would step down in the interest of the school and its roughly 750 students.
Ms. Alvarez’s Dec. 18 resignation came less than a week after the release of results from a five-month investigation into grade-change allegations at the school, which serves grades 6-12 and was ranked among the top 10 high schools nationwide by both Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report magazines this year.
Auditors concluded that “the principal and [a] former counselor likely had knowledge of and/or directed inappropriate grade changes.” The counselor had left the publicly financed school before the audit’s release.
Current and former teachers also told auditors that Ms. Alvarez or the unnamed former counselor, or both, had pressured them to provide extraordinary accommodations that allowed students to improve their grades, such as letting them turn in assignments after an academic term ended.
Teachers also reported feeling pressured to dilute the rigor of Advanced Placement classes at the school, which is chartered by the San Diego Unified School District and located on the UC-San Diego campus. All Preuss students are required to take AP courses and exams in U.S. history, U.S. government, English language, English literature, biology, and chemistry.
Record of Success
Ms. Alvarez, a past national principal of the year, said in a Dec. 20 interview that she was “very, very, very much stunned” about the findings, which she called “absolutely false.”
“I want students to go to college,” she said. “There’s never been any kind of effort to water down anything.”
As to the competence of the university auditors, who she said were certified public accountants rather than school experts, Ms. Alvarez said: “You don’t ask people who have not been in schools to come in and offer opinions on school culture, which they know nothing about. It would be like middle school teachers coming in and evaluating the space shuttle.”
Dolores Davies, a spokeswoman for UC-San Diego, said the audit was “very thorough and comprehensive,” and that the university stands by its findings.
Before the audit, the Preuss School had made headlines primarily for its academic success against long odds. Designed to prepare poor and underserved students for college, the school requires that students come from families in which no parent has graduated from a four-year college and whose household income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty standard.
Despite those obstacles, the school’s scores on California’s Academic Performance Index, a state accountability system, are consistently in the top 10 percent statewide. Of Preuss’ graduating class of 2007, 96 percent were accepted at four-year colleges. Some have gone to such prestigious schools as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia universities.
Since Preuss opened in 1999, other universities have gotten involved in running charter schools with similar missions. ("Hands-On Learning," Oct. 10, 2007.)
Paul W. Drake, UC-San Diego’s senior vice chancellor for academic affairs and a member of the Preuss board of directors, acknowledged that because of its reputation, “the Preuss School was under general pressure to do very well by its students” and “had more attention on it than just your average school.”
But he said it would be “pure speculation” to attribute the alleged widespread grade manipulation to any pressure that Preuss administrators felt to show spectacular results. “It was not clear that there was clear intentionality to this,” Mr. Drake said, adding that software problems may have been responsible for some of the grade changes.
Ms. Davies, the university spokeswoman, said Ms. Alvarez will keep receiving her $146,800 annual salary through June 30, when her contract expires. Until then, Ms. Alvarez will advise Mr. Drake on Preuss-related issues.
The chancellor and other top officials of UC-San Diego plan to hire an external consulting firm with charter school expertise to conduct a deeper review of the Preuss School’s operations.
Although the transcripts of all current students have been corrected, Ms. Davies said, university officials decided against contacting administrators at other colleges where Preuss graduates with potentially incorrect transcripts are now studying.
Vol. 27, Issue 17, Page 6