Report says grade changes ‘consistently applied’ to Indiana schools

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INDIANAPOLIS – A new independent report on Indiana’s A-F school accountability system, suggests that former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Tony Bennett made ‘plausible’ changes to the state’s grading formula and that they were ‘consistently applied’ to other schools.

“Reading this report, I hope, will at least exonerate the former administration from being biased or unfair,” said Senate President Pro-Tem David Long.

Bennett resigned from his job leading schools in Florida after controversy arose about school grading changes during his time in Indiana. Internal emails showed that Bennett pushed for a change from a ‘C’ to an ‘A’ grade for the Christel House Academy, a charter school led by a Republican donor.

The report found that Bennett pushed for the change because the Department of Education used the Christel House as a ‘quality control indicator’ or benchmark school.

“The flurry of concern was that if a school, that there is consensus on should be an ‘A’ school, is suddenly a ‘C’ school in the model, then what’s wrong with the model?” said Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma.

“No one was getting a little special treatment versus another one,” Long said. “They ultimately applied the rule across the board.”

The report found that the 2011-12 grading formula changes made for Christel House also raised the grades of 165 schools across the state. The authors recommended corrected grades for three additional schools.

“I didn’t see anything nefarious here, but I would quote the movie Cool Hand Luke, saying that ‘what we have here is a failure to communicate,'” Bosma said.

The report found that the problems with the grading formula came because the IDOE underestimated administrative and technical challenges and because quality control was not completed due to a loss of technical staff.

As a result, the report noted that the educational community did not understand or trust the accuracy or fairness of the system.

“I believe that the report validates that we do have issues with our current system,” said current state superintendent Glenda Ritz. “And that we’re going to make sure that those are not in place and we’re going to address those issues going forward.”

The report makes several recommendations for improving the accountability system in the future. It advises legislative and educational leaders to develop a revised grading system that includes a pilot program and less reliance on standardized tests.

In the meantime, the report advises the state to suspend intervention for low-performing schools.

“It will be a freeze from this point forward is the recommendation,” Long said. “I think it’s a good one too.”

Supporters of Tony Bennett, and Bennett himself, were quick to point to the report as vindication.

“Clearly some people owe him an apology,” said Cam Savage, former spokesman for Bennett. “I mean, this report says that the accusations made against him were malicious and false, and there’s obviously been a great deal of fallout about that.”

Bennett also released the following statement:

“I appreciate the work of Bill Sheldrake and John Grew and the diligent way they went about researching their report. The report clearly shows that accusations of manipulation of the A-F system for a single school are false and malicious. I am pleased with this vindication, not for me, but for the work of my colleagues at the Department of Education and for the 1.1 million Indiana students who have benefitted and will continue to benefit from a clear and rigorous school accountability system.”
“You will remember that when the Department of Education released school grades last year, I said the process was imperfect and could be improved greatly. Still, it is a far better measurement and accountability tool for our schools than has ever been used in our state. Giving parents, communities and teachers clear and understandable measures of school progress is vital to improving the academic achievement of our students. This should always be our goal, and I appreciate the recommendations of the Sheldrake and Grew report.”
“I hope the unfounded political attacks will now stop and we can focus our attention on providing a great education to Indiana students and building on the success of the past four years.”

Indiana Democratic Party Chair John Zody issued the following statement in response to the report:

“It’s clearly going to take a lot of smart, dedicated Democrats to clean up the mess Tony Bennett left behind. As that process moves forward, we’d all be wise to bear in mind that these aren’t just grades on paper; they’re schools in our communities that teach our children and prepare them for future success. We have to make the best decisions for those students, not decisions that are convenient for our political allies. That’s where Superintendent Bennett lost his way, and we have to make sure it never happens again.

“Bennett’s actions speak to the lack of accountability in state government that continues even today. The Pence Administration’s demonstrated practice of refusing to collaborate on education policy has become clear in recent weeks, and that runs counter to common sense and what Hoosiers are all about.”

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