Two University of South Florida admissions officers forced to resign this week for inflating standardized test scores told investigators other schools do the same thing.
But they did something different.
The USF officials did not treat all students the same. They manipulated the school's average test scores by deleting 900 of the lowest SAT or ACT scores for this year's freshmen who took both tests, while continuing to count both SAT and ACT scores for thousands of higher-performing students.
The result: a boost to USF's academic profile, a major element in national rankings.
"It's an unequal application of standards," said Philo Hutcheson, a former admissions officer who is now a professor specializing in higher education at Georgia State University. "It doesn't accurately represent what the schools see from their students."
Most of Florida's other public universities use students' best scores to compute overall school averages, a commonly accepted practice nationwide. But they treat all students the same.
The changes to USF's records were made after students were admitted and did not affect any admission decisions. But it could affect the university's reputation, making it harder to attract students, faculty and donations.
"Every scandal diminishes the standing of the university," said Roy Weatherford, USF faculty union president.
USF associate vice president Douglas Hartnagel and undergraduate admissions director Dewey Holleman submitted resignations this week at the conclusion of a university audit that showed they inflated test scores.
Test scores are one of the key statistics used in national rankings, including those reported each year in U.S. News & World Report and other publications.
Robert Morse, director of research for U.S. News' college rankings, said USF may have been in jeopardy of backsliding.
There are four tiers for major research universities in the U.S. News rankings, and USF is hovering near the bottom of the third tier. Freshman test scores account for 7.5 percent of the total ranking.
USF could not have tweaked its numbers enough to get into the second tier without raising eyebrows, Morse said. But improved scores may have kept it from tumbling into the bottom tier.
He said the school's actions appear to be "for defensive reasons, a protection of their position."
USF is far from alone in manipulating its data.
Critics have been charging colleges with cooking their books to boost rankings and better their reputations for years.
In a front-page story, the Wall Street Journal reported in 1995 that New College, a Sarasota liberal arts school that was part of USF at the time, deliberately inflated its SAT scores by not using the bottom-scoring 6 percent of students. That lifted the average about 40 points.
"We're starting to see a little scary pattern here," said Robin Raskin, spokeswoman for the Princeton Review, which puts out an annual college guide. "It's a shame there is that much pressure."
Some don't see it getting better.
"The more rankings there are, the more these types of stories will come up," said Gregg Driben, vice president and general manager of Petersen's Test Prep, which issues guides but not rankings.
USF discovered the recent problem in April and concluded Hartnagel and Holleman hid the changes from supervisors, the state and agencies that compile university data, according to the audit. Most of the alterations were made on weekends.
Hartnagel, 60, who made $137,725 a year, declined to comment this week. Holleman, 41, who made $83,400, did not return phone calls. Both men came from Cleveland State University in 2001.
USF spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon said provost Renu Khator will review the situation and determine whether other employees should be disciplined.
The school also is working with the state to restore the deleted scores. Florida university chancellor Debra Austin recommended all 11 public universities review procedures regarding the handling of student records.
USF used to calculate overall averages using all submitted student test scores _ oftentimes more than one for each student, according to auditors. It switched last year to using the top SAT or ACT score for 900 lower-performing students, but continued to count both an ACT and an SAT score for higher-performing students. About half of USF's freshman class submit both an SAT and ACT score.
All deleted scores fell below USF's average of 1,084 on the SAT and 26 on the ACT. Auditors determined the changes would increase USF's average SAT score by at least 14 points.
USF's median SAT score ranked 185th in the nation last year _ down from 124th the year before compared to other research universities.
Hartnagel and Holleman told auditors they only made the switch to be consistent with the state's other public universities.
But officials at the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida said they submit only one score for every student.
"It's distorted if they only took the good scores and not the bad," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "In general, the same practice should be used across the board."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.