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A top-ranked San Diego charter school changed students’ grades, likely with the knowledge or at the direction of the school’s principal and former counselor, according to a long-awaited audit.

Preuss Charter School, the brainchild of University of California San Diego faculty, was accused this fall of fudging grades. University of California auditors who investigated the complaints found that 144 of 190 student transcripts examined were marred by inaccurate grades. Seventy-one percent of the errors boosted students’ grades and academic standing. A small percentage of the alterations made a big difference: 10 students with altered grades would not have met the University of California system’s minimum standards, and one student wouldn’t have made the grade for the California State University system.

Auditors concluded that the principal, Doris Alvarez, and former counselor Phil Ensberg “likely had knowledge of and/or directed inappropriate grade changes.” UCSD management believes the two officials should “be disciplined as appropriate based on the conditions noted in this report,” the report adds. Alvarez and Ensberg were placed on paid leave in September, when the allegations surfaced. Alvarez is a former National Principal of the Year who worked at Hoover High School in San Diego Unified School District; Ensberg is her son-in-law.

The findings tarnish the sterling reputation of Preuss, recently ranked 10th among the country’s high schools by U.S. News and World Report. Preuss subjected students to a demanding course load, heavy in Advanced Placement courses.

UC auditors linked those standards to pressure put on teachers by the school’s principal, counselor and senior advisor “to lower the rigor of AP courses in order to be able to assign more students passing grades.”

To ensure that seniors can vouch for their grades, auditors also evaluated all graduating seniors’ transcripts and fixed any errors, and are proceeding to reassess grades for all other Preuss students. Auditors noted that the school’s grade recordkeeping was shoddy overall, and that the school had shunned the Zangle computer system, used by San Diego Unified schools to track grades and attendance. Preuss noted grades manually instead. “The Principal indicated this was necessary as a result of problems with Zangle service and data retrieval,” the report reads.

Later, Preuss adopted a different computer system, Aeries, but failed to turn on its grade change audit feature. Alvarez, Ensberg, the dean of students, academic advisors and the registrar had full access to the system.

The registrar admitted to altering her two children’s grades, and was fired by Alvarez for that reason in April.

“The exclusion of an audit trail combined with extensive system access created a lack of accountability for anyone making student grade and/or class name and number changes,” auditors wrote.

EMILY ALPERT

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