L.A. Trade-Tech algebra innovations spark uproar — and an internal investigation

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 four-year 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 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 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 degrees in all majors.

The politics of math: Is algebra necessary to obtain a college degree? »

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 four-course 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 full-time 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 last 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.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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