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Test scores inflated, USF audit finds

The University of South Florida forced its top two admissions officers to resign Thursday, saying they inflated standardized test scores for about 900 of this year's freshmen.

USF said associate vice president Douglas Hartnagel and undergraduate admissions director Dewey Holleman deleted SAT and ACT scores that were below the school's average. That pumped up USF's academic profile, a major element in national rankings.

The two men hid the changes from supervisors, the state and from the dozens of agencies that compile university data, according to a USF audit. Most of the alterations were made on weekends.

Hartnagel and Holleman submitted their resignations at the conclusion of the audit, which was prompted by an anonymous tip.

"We were shocked by the audit's findings," USF president Judy Genshaft said in a written statement. "This is very serious. The integrity of our data is paramount."

Hartnagel, 60, who made $137,725 a year, declined to comment when reached at home Thursday night. Holleman, 41, who made $83,400, did not return a phone call. Both men were hired in 2001.

Michelle Carlyon, USF director of media relations, said an investigation is continuing. It's unclear whether other employees could be disciplined.

The university said about 500 SAT scores and 400 ACT scores for students admitted for the summer and fall terms were deleted. In each case, the deleted score was the lower of two test results submitted by the student.

All of the scores fell below USF's average of 1,084 on the SAT and 26 on the ACT.

Test scores are one of the key statistics used in national rankings, including those reported each year in U.S. News & World Report and a slew of other publications.

"This is a symptom of our ranking-obsessed malaise," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "It is a natural consequence to the untenable pressures."

Compared to other research universities in the United States, USF's test scores are low. Its median SAT score ranked 185th in the nation last year, according to USF's own statistics. That was down from 124th the year before.

Genshaft has said her goal is to move USF into the top 50 in that and other categories.

John Barnhill, the director of records and admissions at Florida State University, said it is general practice at his school and others to use either the best SAT or ACT score when choosing students.

"We do the same thing," he said. "I think it's common practice."

USF officials refused to make any employee available to speak about the records. It also said it wouldn't comment on practices at other schools.

In a release, USF said it will implement "new safeguards to protect and assure data integrity," but did not say how. It also is restoring deleted scores.

"This is an unfortunate incident," said MacKay Jimeson, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "It's a local issue and we trust that the university is taking a look at it."

USF launched its internal audit in April, after the inspector general for the state Board of Education received a complaint that lower-than-average test scores were being deleted from student records to boost the school's academic profile.

In the summer of 2003, Hartnagel and Holleman began comparing whether USF's process for reporting test scores was consistent with the state's 10 other public universities, according to the audit.

Patricia Grossman, USF associate director for the data administration and reporting team, told auditors she contacted an employee at another state university who told her the school only uses the scores considered for admissions, not all of the scores submitted.

Later, Holleman told Grossman to manually delete below-average scores herself and to not delegate the duty, according to the audit. In May, she reported to him that the changes would increase USF's average SAT by 14 points.

Its unclear whether low scores were deleted prior to 2003, since complete records are not kept.

In interviews with auditors, the three said they made the changes to more accurately reflect the actual profiles of admitted students. They said they were aware the average tests scores were significantly higher.

Grossman said the change was discussed at an undergraduate admission staff meeting. Hartnagel said he talked to Harold Nixon, USF's former vice president for student affairs, about SAT scores in May and June 2003, and at the president's Cabinet meeting in December, but did not provide details of the changes.

Nixon, who retired this year, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Robert Morse, director of data research for the U.S. News college rankings, said the test score deletions will be viewed as "pretty offensive."

"There's one thing about trying to improve your credentials through legitimate academic programs . . . and flat-out lying about it," Morse said.

In the U.S. News rankings, there are four tiers for major research universities. USF is ranked near the tail end of the third tier. Freshmen test scores account for 7.5 percent of the total ranking.

Morse said this is the first time he has heard of a school being caught by an internal review _ and officials being fired _ for deliberately altering data.

But manipulation does happen.

The magazine regularly catches erroneous data by cross-checking with other databases. In many cases, the problem is sloppy reporting. But Morse said he suspects intentional efforts to mislead in some instances.

Times staff writer Ron Matus and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

SAT SCORES

Here are the average SAT scores for incoming freshmen last year at Florida's 11 public universities. University of South Florida officials say the deletion of 900 scores there, which inflated the school's average, did not begin until this year.

NEW COLLEGE OF FLORIDA: 1,325

FLORIDA: 1,265

FLORIDA STATE: 1,185

CENTRAL FLORIDA: 1,165

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL: 1,140

NORTH FLORIDA: 1,130

WEST FLORIDA: 1,085

SOUTH FLORIDA: 1,084

FLORIDA ATLANTIC: 1,030

FLORIDA GULF COAST: 1,025

FLORIDA A&M: 990

OTHER SCHOOLS

CALIFORNIA BERKELEY: 1,315

PRINCETON (private): 1,460

Source: Schools, Florida Department of Education

USF'S RANKING

Compared to other American research universities, the average SAT score at USF is low. And the school's ranking in that category dropped significantly from 2002 to 2003. USF's rank, compared to other research schools:

2000: 83rd

2001: 126th

2002: 124th

2003: 185th

Source: USF

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