School test scandal claims decorated principal (USA Today, December 21, 2007)
A decorated San Diego high school principal has resigned in connection with a case of alleged cheating and grade-tampering. Observers say this is part of a growing problem, as educators' and students' lives increasingly rest on the results of a handful of high-stakes tests.
Preuss School Principal Doris Alvarez, a former national Principal of the Year, submitted a letter of resignation on Tuesday, said the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), a week after a university audit found that three-fourths of reviewed Preuss transcripts had one or more grades changed — most of them to benefit students. Alvarez denies any role in changing grades.
Preuss, a lauded charter school for middle- and high-school students, was founded eight years ago by a UCSD professor and earned several prestigious awards during Alvarez's tenure. Just last month, the school, which prepares low-income and minority students for college, ranked 10th out of 18,000 U.S. high schools in new rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Preuss ranked second in the USA among charter high schools. Last May, Preuss ranked 10th among 1,200 high schools deemed the nation's best by Newsweek.
UCSD officials didn't immediately return calls seeking comment, but in a statement issued Tuesday the university said it "maintains a high level of confidence in the school, its mission, and its students." UCSD says it will retain a consulting firm to conduct a comprehensive review of Preuss management practices and academic operations.
The scandal is similar to dozens in other states, says Don Sorenson of Caveon LLC, a Utah-based security firm that specializes in school cheating and has reviewed about 15 million test results.
Caveon is often hired to perform "data forensics" when teachers or administrators are suspected of changing students' answers on tests.
"Because of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing, we've seen lots and lots of incidents," he says. No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal education law, requires schools to continuously improve student scores in math and reading. If they don't, schools face mounting sanctions that can include restaffing and school closures.
Caveon often investigates when a school's test scores make a sudden jump. "The only way it generally happens is when somebody messed with the scores," Sorenson says. The following year, school districts generally monitor testing more closely — and scores often fall.
"As soon as they're monitored, then everything drops off," Sorenson says.
Preuss is jointly chartered by UCSD and the San Diego School District. It opened in 1999 with 150 students; it currently enrolls 755 students in grades six through 12 and relies heavily on UCSD students as tutors. Of last June's graduating class of 78 seniors, the university says, 96% were accepted to four-year colleges, including all University of California campuses.
But the audit last month found that 75.8% of transcripts reviewed had "one or more grades inaccurately reflected in student transcripts" or discrepancies between grades posted to electronic grade tables and student transcripts. It also found that about 71% of the inaccuricies helped students' grades or academic standing — and that grades on 10 students' transcripts, if unaltered, would have made them ineligible for admission to the state university system.
The audit found that Alvarez and a counselor "likely had knowledge of and/or directed inappropriate grade changes." Former and current teachers interviewed said she and the counselor had pressured them to give a few students "extraordinary accommodations" to improve their grades, such as extra time and "unusual extra credit assignments" not offered to the remainder of the class.
All Preuss students must take Advanced Placement (AP) courses, regardless of how well they did in these subjects earlier in school, the audit said. AP teachers complained that because of pressure from Alvarez and others, they "sometimes felt compelled to lower the rigor of AP courses in order to be able to assign more students passing grades."
In 1997, Alvarez was named Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Last May, when Preuss made Newsweek's top schools list, she said, "Every student knows why they are here, to get ready for college."
She couldn't immediately be reached on Friday, but in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, she said she had no role in changing grades — and called accusations that she pressured teachers "the most ludicrous statement I've ever heard."
"I'm the captain of the ship," she told the newspaper. "You can call me responsible, but you can't call me dishonest."
She also questioned the competence of auditors and said that, in many cases, they didn't report actions she took to correct grade-tampering. "When I discovered the grade inaccuracies, I immediately took action," she said.
Alvarez said she was "amazed" by the number of inaccurate grades reported, but added that most were due to computer or human error.San Diego schools spokesman Jack Brandais had no comment on the case, but said Preuss' charter, which allows it to operate, is up for renewal in June and must be approved by the school board.