L.A. Trade-Tech faces scru­tiny

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Teresa Watan­abe and Rosanna Xia

Faced with dis­mal suc­cess rates, Los An­ge­les Trade-Tech­ni­cal Col­lege was des­per­ate for new ideas to help some of the city’s most un­der­pre­pared stu­dents gain the math skills needed to earn a de­gree or trans­fer to a fouryear univer­sity.

The col­lege, like many of its Cal­i­for­nia peers, had fallen short for decades. Only 8% of first-time stu­dents in 2014-15 com­pleted a trans­fer-level math course within two years.

But a pi­lot pro­gram the col­lege launched last year to help stu­dents brush up on ba­sic arith­metic skills be­fore eas­ing into in­ter­me­di­ate al­ge­bra has sparked a cam­pus up­roar — and an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into grade fraud.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion found the col­lege had fal­si­fied the grades of sev­eral stu­dents to give them credit for in­ter­me­di­ate al­ge­bra, which is re­quired for an as­so­ciate’s de­gree. No ev­i­dence was pro­vided to prove that some stu­dents who re­ceived credit last year ac­tu­ally took the re­quired exit exam, ac­cord­ing to a May 31 memo by Arnold Blan­shard, the in­ter­nal au­dit di­rec­tor of the Los An­ge­les Com­mu­nity Col­lege District.

The memo, ob­tained by The Times, also said the sig­na­ture of the math depart­ment head was fal­si­fied on the final grade form and that other pro­ce­dures were vi­o­lated.

L.A. Trade-Tech Pres­i­dent Lau­rence Frank crit­i­cized the au­di­tor’s find­ings as “highly in­ac­cu­rate,” say­ing they were pre­lim­i­nary and in­com­plete.

The con­tro­versy un­der­scores the chal­lenges of chart­ing new paths to ad­dress a prob­lem that has stymied two-year col­leges across the state for decades: An over­whelm­ing num­ber of stu­dents can’t demon­strate the math skills re­quired for an as­so­ciate’s de­gree or trans­fer to Cal State or the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia. Among nearly 171,000 com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dents who took their first re­me­dial math course six years ago, more than 110,000 have still failed to meet the re­quire­ment, ac­cord­ing to state data.

That road­block has kicked up a fierce and grow­ing de­bate over whether the state should con­tinue to re­quire in­ter­me­di­ate al­ge­bra — the long-held gold stan­dard for en­try into a four-year col­lege — for as­so­ciate’s de­grees in all ma­jors.

District Chan­cel­lor Fran­cisco C. Ro­driguez said Blan­shard would is­sue a sup­ple­men­tal re­port based on ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion pro­vided to the au­dit team. At present, grades is­sued to about 15 of 100 stu­dents en­rolled in the pi­lot pro­gram last spring and sum­mer still need to be val­i­dated with ev­i­dence that they passed the al­ge­bra exit exam, district and col­lege of­fi­cials said.

In an in­ter­view, Ro­driguez said “ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties” were com­mit­ted in rolling out the pi­lot pro­gram, but he saw no in­tent to fal­sify stu­dent grades.

The ini­tia­tive al­lows stu­dents to en­roll in a non-credit ba­sic skills class to re­fresh their learn­ing, then progress to more ad­vanced material and earn course credit if they demon­strate mastery of the re­quired skills through an exam or other mea­sures. For math, stu­dents use an on­line cur­ricu­lum guided by an in­struc­tor, en­abling them to com­plete in­ter­me­di­ate al­ge­bra in one ex­tended course at their own pace rather than a tra­di­tional four­course se­quence.

“While some ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties oc­curred in the process, the in­tent, as I saw, was in­no­va­tive, cre­ative, coura­geous fac­ulty trying to do ev­ery­thing they can to en­gage stu­dents in math and English,” Ro­driguez said.

The con­tro­versy has roiled the down­town Los An­ge­les cam­pus of 13,000 full­time stu­dents. Sev­eral stu­dents were caught in the mid­dle, as the col­lege with­held their grades pend­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Aaron Galea, 19, said he com­pleted the al­ge­bra course and scored a B on the exit exam in Novem­ber. But his grade was with­held for months, jeop­ar­diz­ing his chance to grad­u­ate.

“I’ve done ev­ery­thing I needed to do, but I’m be­ing held back for no rea­son,” Galea said last month.

He said his grade was ap­proved Thursday, a day af­ter The Times raised the case with Ro­driguez. Two other stu­dents, Bruce Lee and Ed­uardo Her­nan­dez, said they’re still dis­put­ing is­sues with the al­ge­bra class they took last spring.

Some staff and fac­ulty mem­bers re­main deeply sus­pi­cious of cam­pus lead­er­ship and be­lieve too many cor­ners were cut.

Con­cerns about pos­si­ble im­pro­pri­eties were raised last fall in let­ters from Carolyn Walker, se­nior ad­mis­sions and records su­per­vi­sor, to the district’s of­fice of gen­eral coun­sel and Eloy Or­tiz Oak­ley, chan­cel­lor of Cal­i­for­nia Com­mu­nity Col­leges.

Walker re­ported that she and her col­leagues were or­dered to waive pre­req­ui­sites and post what she called “fraud­u­lent grades” for in­ter­me­di­ate al­ge­bra us­ing im­proper pro­ce­dures. She also said that nu­mer­ous grade forms were im­prop­erly signed. “It was wrong what they were do­ing,” said Walker, who is re­tir­ing this month af­ter 28 years at L.A. Trade-Tech. “Be­yond a doubt, it was fraud.”

The district re­ferred the al­le­ga­tions to Blan­shard, who launched his in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Jan­uary. Blan­shard de­clined in­ter­view re­quests.

Tayebeh Mef­tagh, math depart­ment chair, told The Times that some­one else signed her name on the grade forms with­out her knowl­edge. But Mef­tagh said she would have signed them had she been at school at the time; of­fi­cials said they were in a rush to post the grades be­cause stu­dents were de­mand­ing them — in­clud­ing one who needed proof of com­ple­tion for an im­mi­nent job in­ter­view.

“No­body did any­thing wrong,” Mef­tagh said. “We were all do­ing it for our stu­dents.”

Leti­cia Bara­jas, a cam­pus vice pres­i­dent who over­saw the pi­lot pro­gram, ac­knowl­edged some er­rors — such as us­ing the wrong form to record the grades — and said they were cor­rected in sub­se­quent semesters.

“Like any in­no­va­tion, we pi­lot it, we learn from it, we ac­tu­ally made ad­just­ments,” she said. “We ac­knowl­edge the mis­take.”

Bara­jas said the pi­lot pro­gram re­flected an ur­gent ef­fort to im­prove the suc­cess of its stu­dents. About 85% of en­ter­ing stu­dents test at eighth-grade level math, and only 3% of stu­dents en­ter­ing ca­reer tech­ni­cal pro­grams com­plete the math needed to earn a de­gree or trans­fer to a four-year univer­sity, ac­cord­ing to L.A. Trade-Tech data.

The cam­pus, which has weath­ered other scan­dals in­volv­ing grade fraud and em­bez­zle­ment at an af­fil­i­ated non­profit foun­da­tion, was placed on pro­ba­tion for one year by a re­gional ac­cred­it­ing agency in 2009 be­cause of aca­demic and staffing prob­lems.

Since then, the col­lege has em­barked on what Bara­jas calls a “trans­for­ma­tional ini­tia­tive” to help stu­dents com­plete de­gree pro­grams more quickly, en­list­ing such part­ners as the USC Cen­ter for Ur­ban Ed­u­ca­tion and the Los An­ge­les Area Cham­ber of Com­merce. Pres­i­dent Obama vis­ited the cam­pus in 2014, prais­ing its “good work.”

The ini­tia­tive, which won a $2-mil­lion state in­no­va­tion award this year, in­cludes course road maps to cer­tifi­cates and de­grees, more on­line learn­ing, ex­panded aca­demic and coun­sel­ing sup­port and mea­sures of suc­cess based on mastery of skills rather than time spent in class­rooms.

The fate of stu­dents whose grades re­main un­der scru­tiny was un­clear. One stu­dent at risk is Javier Car­camo, 24, who said he took the al­ge­bra course last spring, took an exit exam and re­ceived a C. But his in­struc­tor, Marco Cuel­lar, told Blan­shard he never gave an exit exam for the class, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Times. Cuel­lar did not re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests.

“I did the work, and I’ll be re­ally mad if they take my credit away,” Car­camo said.

Frank and Bara­jas said they are putting in place the au­di­tor’s rec­om­men­da­tions for stronger con­trols to val­i­date grades, train em­ploy­ees, pre­vent col­lu­sion and avoid abuse of ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers. They said they in­tend to keep plung­ing for­ward on their re­form work.

“Yes, we screwed up,” Frank said. “But it was in the con­text of the start-up of a pi­lot, and we have now fig­ured out how to do this.”

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

ED­UARDO HER­NAN­DEZ, left, Bruce Lee and Aaron Galea were forced to dis­pute is­sues with an al­ge­bra class they took through a pi­lot pro­gram at Los An­ge­les Trade-Tech­ni­cal Col­lege.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

AARON GALEA, cen­ter, said he took an al­ge­bra class and exit exam in Novem­ber. His grade was with­held for months. Bruce Lee, left, and Ed­uardo Her­nan­dez are still dis­put­ing is­sues with the class they took last spring.

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