Indiana News

A-F Review Concludes Grades Rushed, But No Evidence of Rigging

Report: "there simply was not enough time" to spot bugs in system

9/6/2013

An independent review of the A-to-F school grading controversy concludes then-state school superintendent Tony Bennett rushed the process of finalizing last year's grades.

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The grades have been under fire since the disclosure of internal emails last month showing an intense focus on the C grade given to the Christel House charter school in Indianapolis, with changes to the formula eventually raising that grade to an A.

The report by former state fiscal analysts John Grew and Bill Sheldrake calls the revised formula "plausible," and says it was applied consistently to all schools. The report says Bennett's supporters and critics agreed Christel House was universally considered an excellent school, and says the Department of Education under Bennett was using the school as a quality-control indicator for the grading system. When poor high school math scores resulted in a C, the report says Bennett feared the credibility of the overall system would be undermined.

The uproar over the grade change led to Bennett's resignation as Florida education commissioner. Bennett issued a statement saying the report "exonerates" him, and blasting "false and malicious" accusations that the grades were manipulated to benefit Christel House.

But the report says the department "underestimated the administrative and technical challenges" of calculating grades, and says those challenges were worsened by the departure of key technical staffers. Grew and Sheldrake say "there simply needed to be more time" than the six months between final administrative rule approval and the public release of grades.

Legislators had ordered a revised grading scale even before the controversy, with instructions to give more weight to improvement, not just raw test scores. The new scale is being developed by a 17-member panel appointed by House and Senate leaders, Governor Pence, and Bennett's successor, state school superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne) says they'll heed a recommendation to do a one-year test run of the new formula to see what problems pop up before formally implementing the new formula. Long and Ritz are also embracing a recommendation to "freeze" the status of Evansville's Glenwood Leadership Academy, which is on the brink of qualifying for state takeover, because of the questions about the grades.

House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis), who together with Long commissioned the report, says the change in Christel House's grade resulted from one policy decision and one programming error. The grade formula gave elementary and middle schools bonus points for showing significant improvement. The department incorrectly capped that bonus so schools couldn't receive a higher total than a "perfect" 4.0. Removing that cap not only aided Christel House, but improved the grades of 165 schools by one letter grade.

But the report finds that when the department discovered and fixed the error, it extended the adjustment to high schools as well, something that wasn't supposed to happen under the rules. The report says the A grades awarded to Speedway, Rossville and Northview High Schools should be reduced to B's.

In addition, the department opted to reinterpret the rule on who was considered a high school. Christel House and 15 other schools offered some high school grades but not all, and therefore couldn't offset poor scores with bonuses for graduation rates. The revised rule excluded high school scores from consideration for those schools, a change which lifted Christel House to an A but appears to have pushed another charter school, the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology, from a D to an F.

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