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Report says understaffed Indiana agency rushed grades

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TOM LoBIANCO,

Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) A report released Friday found that former Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett changed the grade for a donor's charter school last year because it was considered a "quality control" school from the start, but did not address whether there was any political pressure to make the switch.

Bennett and his staff were overburdened by the complexities of creating an "A-F" school grading system and rushed the answers out before they were ready, wrote John Grew and Bill Sheldrake in their 58-page report. Indiana's Republican legislative leaders tasked the two veterans of Democratic and Republican administrations last month with reviewing the grade changes.

Grew and Sheldrake found that Christel House's initial "C'' which was switched to an "A'' prompted changes across the grading formula. However, they said the changes were applied evenly among other schools.

Education leaders interviewed for the report said they believe the Indianapolis charter school is a top-performing institution, but also said Bennett's formula did not earn their "trust" because of a lack of transparency.

"Through our interviews, we learned that Dr. Bennett had been under considerable pressure to design an accountability system that was not deemed harsh to charter schools or urban schools," they wrote. "In response to such concerns, he repeatedly stated that Christel House Academy, which was widely viewed as a successful charter school in an urban environment, would do well under the new system."

The initial "C'' Christel House received was "a surprise to Dr. Bennett and senior DOE staff," Grew and Sheldrake's report said. Efforts to raise the school's grade were both an attempt to save the credibility of the New Accountability Model and a desire to treat a recognized good school fairly, according to a wide range of testimony.

"Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report," Grew and Sheldrake said.

Bennett resigned as Florida's schools commissioner a few days after The Associated Press published emails showing he changed Indiana's school grading formula for Christel House. The school was founded by a prolific donor who has given roughly $2.8 million to Indiana Republicans in the last 15 years.

Bennett said in a statement Friday that the report is "vindication" against "political attacks" levied against him.

"The report clearly shows that accusations of manipulation of the A-F system for a single school are false and malicious," Bennett said. "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 benefited and will continue to benefit from a clear and rigorous school accountability system."

Grew and Sheldrake said Friday that the report does not "exonerate" or "vindicate" Bennett, nor condemn him. They said it only explains how his team changed the grading formula.

The report details the mechanics of how Bennett and his team changed the school's initial "C'' to an "A." First they reworked the computer model to remove an artificial limit that had been placed on "bonus points" awarded to the school for performance in grades K-8. Then they dropped the scores from the school's ninth and 10th grades, removing poor algebra scores in the process.

Sheldrake explained that because the school did not have an 11th or 12th grade it adds a grade each year and last year was the first with a class of 10th-graders it was unfairly being penalized in how graduation rates figured into the formula.

The authors also discovered that three high schools had their scores incorrectly bumped up by the removal of bonus-point limits in the high school calculations. They recommended their scores be readjusted, likely taking them from "A'' grades back to "B'' grades.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said he hopes the findings allow education leaders to move forward with a rewrite of the school grading formula, which was called for months before Bennett's emails were published.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he did not think "benchmark" schools, like Christel House, would be used in the new system to set the formula.

"Whether these were appropriate benchmarks to select under the circumstances, the report doesn't say, I don't know that I have an opinion at this point and it will be up to the department (of education) and the Board of Education to address this," he said.

Grades for some schools may have to be reworked and the creation of a new grading formula should be transparent, include more input and be easier to understand, Grew and Sheldrake recommend in the report.

School Superintendent Glenda Ritz, the Democrat and former union president who ousted Bennett last November, was hesitant Friday to criticize Bennett, but hinted she had concerns with how the previous administration came up with the grades.

"The grades that were issued were done according to the previous administration. I cannot stand before you and say that I feel they were done in complete adherence with the rules," Ritz said.

In the meantime, the state is expected to issue another round of school grades using the Bennett formula while testing is done on the new formula being crafted.

 

Posted 9/9/2013