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A new report from the San Diego County Office of Education urges an unconventional high school to change back grades that were improperly altered, ending the bitter saga over grade-changing allegations at the San Diego Metropolitan Career and Technical High School, known as the Met.

A tiny high school on the Mesa College campus, the Met has been embroiled in a battle over its unusual grading system for almost two years since someone first phoned the school district about it.

The report, sought as an outside opinion, spurred San Diego Unified to correct grades for more than a dozen students. It reinforces an earlier school district audit that found the tiny high school shouldn’t have altered grades that students earned elsewhere, even if they did new work.

“It comes down to a very small number of kids, a very small number of credits, and a very small decrease in GPA,” said Mike Price, the area superintendent who oversees the Met. “We don’t believe there was any intention of grade inflation. They were acting in good faith.”

The question of whether the Met had done anything incorrectly — and what to do about it — became mired in disputes over how its unusual grading system works and whether auditors gave it a fair shake.

Last August, school district auditors found that, between February 2007 and February 2009, the atypical high school had changed more than 70 grades for students who came from other districts. Fs and Ds became Cs. The Met also failed to record a dozen Ds and Fs that students had earned elsewhere.

The Met, founded more than six and a half years ago, follows the Big Picture philosophy, which lets students improve their grades by doing independent work over time. That means that teens can up their grades months or even years after getting them, doing projects and exhibitions to show their learning.

Tony Burks, the school district administrator who oversaw the Met at the time, argued last year that what “would be grave concerns at a traditional, comprehensive high school” were accepted practices at the Met, according to the County Office report. Burks suggested the grading allegations were unfounded.

School staffers said they only changed grades after students did new, improved work at the Met.

But school district auditors concluded that the Met couldn’t legally increase grades given by another school and record them as if they were earned at the old school.

And some grades were changed the same day a student enrolled, casting doubt on whether they reflected new work.

California state law says that only the teacher who taught a course can give a grade, and unless there is a “clerical or mechanical mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency,” that grade is final.

Met staffers slammed the audit as shabbily done. Their complaints spurred San Diego Unified to hire outside attorneys to investigate its own internal auditors.

Besides that investigation, San Diego Unified also turned to the County Office of Education for another opinion on whether the Met could alter grades earned elsewhere.

“Not only did we do an internal review, we did a review of the review,” Superintendent Bill Kowba said. “That’s because we were, in my opinion, in an uncharted area.”

“It’s not every day that we are dealing with something as sensitive as a grade adjustment,” he added.

After the original audit, Principal Mildred Phillips said the Met would change its practices in the future, but would grandfather in students whose grades were altered beforehand. Now the new County Office report has spurred the school district to actually go back and reverse grades that were changed before.

For some students, that means simply changing a grade back to what it was before. For others, it means getting two different grades: the original one that was earned at a former school, and another, separate grade based on additional work done at the Met. Only 16 students were affected, Price said, and all but two have already graduated. Nobody has been disciplined in connection with the changed grades.

Phillips declined to talk about the report but wrote in an email, “For two years the Met’s staff, students, parents and I have endured painful accusations. I did not have any parents transferring their students out of the Met because of the accusations.”

Price is now tasked with drawing up new policies for the Met that would allow students to improve their grades over time without running afoul of state law.

The unconventional, fluid grading at the Met is one example of the vast differences in how grading is done across San Diego Unified and schools statewide. Earlier this year, voiceofsandiego.org analyzed the district’s grades and test scores and found that students at the Met were more likely to get As and Bs than kids at any San Diego high school last year, but didn’t have the highest scores on a range of tests eyed by colleges and the state.

That could be a symptom of grade inflation: students getting As for the same work that would get Cs or Ds elsewhere. But it could also be that the Met just judges kids on different skills, ones that aren’t measured well by state tests. Grades are so subjective that nobody can really say what they represent.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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