Two Camps Dispute Preuss Audit’s Validity

    Students at UCSD’s nationally recognized Preuss School await the results of a second outside investigation into the charter school’s operations. (Sanh Luong/Guardian)

    The audit that recommended an external programmatic review
    of UCSD’s Preuss School is now being criticized by two
    opposing parties: a group of professors who claim the report was biased against
    the school’s ex-principal and several former employees who allege that it
    minimized her role in the grade-changing scandal.

    In a Jan. 15 letter written to Chancellor Marye Anne Fox and
    Preuss Board of Directors Chair Cecil Lytle, a group of five UCSD professors
    questioned the audit’s methodology, saying that the statistical analysis of
    altered grades was flawed because the transcripts examined did not constitute a
    random sample from all of the school’s grades. Investigators from UCSD’s Audit
    and Management Advisory Services found that 144 of 190 transcripts they
    reviewed contained at least one or more errors, 72 percent of which improved
    the affected students’ records.

    The report’s conclusions were not based on a randomly
    selected sample of grades, the letter said, and therefore the auditors could
    not definitively eliminate the possibility that the altered grades were due to
    chance.

    “It is theoretically possible, and easily testable, that the
    actual error rates in the Preuss transcripts may be very small, and that the
    bulk of these errors may be random and unintentional,” the letter stated.

    The professors also questioned the implication of
    ex-Principal Doris Alvarez, who resigned on Dec. 18 after the audit concluded
    that she “likely had knowledge of and/or directed inappropriate grade changes.”
    They said most of the evidence of Alvarez’s complicity was based on testimony
    given by former Preuss Registrar Pearline Khavarian, whom Alvarez said she
    terminated in April for changing her daughter’s grade on a transcript.

    Biology professor Terrence Sejnowski, one of the letter’s
    authors, said the group first met Alvarez several years ago while collaborating
    on a learning center project. According to Sejnowski, the professors were
    impressed by Alvarez’s integrity, and became concerned whether they should
    continue collaborating with her after the audit was released.

    “When we read the audit carefully we could simply not make a
    decision based on it,” Sejnowski said in an e-mail. “We became concerned that a
    grave injustice was being committed against Dr. Alvarez.”

    However, Khavarian’s former assistant said grade changing
    was a common practice done with administrators’ full knowledge, and that the
    grade changes were primarily focused on students in the bottom third of their
    classes.

    “These were not random grade changes,” said Julianne Singer,
    a volunteer who worked in Khavarian’s office from 2004 to 2006. “They were
    targeted at [Advanced Placement] classes. That will tell you what was changed
    and why. When [Alvarez] said this is human error, nothing about this was human
    error.”

    Singer said she and Khavarian were asked to replace grades —
    in what is referred to as the school’s internal grade suppression policy —
    after the student had retaken a course he or she had failed. However, Singer
    said she was alarmed by the high number of grade changes she was requested to
    perform, especially when the second course was not equivalent in difficulty to
    the first.

    For example, Singer said Alvarez told Khavarian and former
    teacher Jennifer Howard that failing grades from a 2006 AP European History
    class were not equivalent to grades earned in a subsequent six-week summer
    school course, but then apparently told Khavarian to replace the grades anyway.

    “When we protested, we were told these orders came from the
    top,” Singer said. “This was not a secretive, surreptitious process. Everyone
    knew what I was doing. I was shocked this was so casual.”

    In one instance in 2005, Singer said Alvarez watched over
    her shoulder as she replaced grades with ones from other courses.

    However, Alvarez has repeatedly denied any knowledge of
    grade changes, arguing that it would violate the school’s educational mission
    of preparing its students to succeed in college.

    Khavarian’s termination was made official in April, and
    Howard’s contract was not renewed in June. Howard is currently pursuing legal
    action against the university and has refused multiple requests for comment.

    The auditors found that Preuss administrators need to
    develop an internal grade suppression policy mirroring that of the San Diego
    Unified School District, which co-charters the school with UCSD.

    The audit report also stated that Khavarian admitted to
    changing her daughter’s grade, but that her testimony was still considered
    credible because it was corroborated by Singer and other parties. Singer
    disputed this claim, saying that Khavarian was used as a scapegoat by Alvarez,
    whom she once considered a close family friend.

    “Not only would Pearline not have changed the grades, but
    she never would have admitted to doing it,” Singer said.

    According to Singer, there was a specific protocol in place
    regarding the grades of Khavarian’s two children, so that she would never be
    accused of tampering with their transcripts. Former head counselor Carol Sobek
    — who was also implicated in the audit as having likely knowledge of the grade
    changes — would pull the Khavarian children’s report cards and enter the grades
    into their transcripts herself.

    Khavarian has been unable to prove her innocence because her
    access to grade reporting software and her UCSD e-mail account were revoked the
    same day Alvarez terminated her, Singer said. Khavarian declined an interview
    at the advice of her lawyer.

    In addition, both Alvarez and the group of professors
    attacked the auditors for what they called potentially “leading questions” that
    could have led employees to falsely accuse Alvarez of wrongdoing.

    “My question is how did they ask questions of people?”
    Alvarez said shortly after the audit’s release. “If you ask a question in a
    particular way, you’ll get a particular answer.”

    Singer, however, defended the auditors’ professionalism and
    the way in which the interviews were conducted.

    “The men in the auditing department worked very hard,” she
    said. “For [Alvarez] to go about impugning their work is unconscionable. They
    did an excellent job, and while I have quibbles with some of their findings,
    they went to exhaustive lengths.”

    Former Preuss School government teacher Greg Campbell, who
    taught during the 2003-04 school year and testified in the audit, said he had
    no concern about the way in which his interview was conducted.

    “[The auditors] were very professional and asked very good
    questions, much more of the open-ended type,” Campbell said. “They were
    deliberate and prepared to let the teacher do most of the talking.”

    Singer said any flaws in the audit’s conclusions were due to
    a lack of cooperation by specific Preuss employees, whom she said went to great
    lengths to keep pertinent evidence from the investigators. The auditors noted
    they could not find any original Scantron grade entry forms for a majority of
    the affected transcripts, but could not determine the cause of their
    disappearance. While Alvarez said the records were kept in a locked storage
    facility and monitored by a staff member she declined to identify, Singer said
    the key code to enter the room was available to many Preuss employees.

    “Everyone had access,” she said. “I even went in several
    times. It was certainly not private.”

    The university can determine administrators’ culpability
    with greater certainty by taking a closer look at where those records could
    have gone, Singer said.

    “The audit and its conclusions were too limited due to the
    evidence that was not made available to them,” she said.

    The letter asked Fox and Lytle to reopen and further
    investigate the audit, while Singer is currently advocating for an additional investigation
    to be conducted by the UCSD Academic Senate.

    Vice Chancellor of Resource Management and Planning Gary C.
    Matthews is currently interviewing outside consulting firms to perform an
    external examination of the school’s operating procedures, as recommended by
    the auditors.

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