By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
An independent investigation into the state’s new A-to-F school grading system has found that former state schools superintendent Tony Bennett fairly adjusted the system’s grading formula for 16 charter schools, including one founded by a prominent Republican donor.
The report, authored by a Democrat analyst and a Republican analyst, also found that the changes Bennett made triggered grade improvements for more than 165 schools around the state — both public and private — after Bennett’s staff realized there were errors in how they’d applied the formula.
The report released Friday specifically found that changes made to the final grade for Christel House Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis, were “plausible and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances.”
Allegations that Bennett had manipulated the grading system to benefit Christel House’s founder led to his resignation last month as Florida’s schools chief, though he denied wrongdoing and called the allegations “false” and “malicious.”
In a statement released Friday, 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 benefitted and will continue to benefit from a clear and rigorous school accountability system.”
The report found no substance to the allegations, but does blame Bennett for rushing the release of the controversial school grades without conducting a pilot program first that likely would have revealed flaws in the school grading formula that later led to the grade changes.
It also found there was deep distrust of Bennett among educators and others who have a stake in the grading formula results, which have significant impact on schools and their local communities.
“(A) significant portion of the educational community did not understand or trust in the accuracy or fairness of the Bennett Rule’s metrics, did not believe that the metrics represented essential accountability constructs, and did not believe that the Rule treated different school formats (public, private, charter) equally and fairly,” the report said.
House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tempore David Long commissioned the report to determine the validity of the A-to-F school rating system for the 2011-12 school year, after the allegations arose in an Associated Press report.
At a press conference Friday, both said the report cleared Bennett of the accusation that he manipulated grades to benefit Christel House.
“I hope this will exonerate the former administration from (the allegation) of being biased or unfair,” Long said.
Both Bosma and Long noted that the legislature has already moved to change the school grading system and that an advisory panel made up of educators from around the state will help guide those changes. One of the changes anticipated is less emphasis on the year-end standardized test scores and more emphasis on students’ academic progress from year to year.
The report was conducted by Democrat John Grew, executive director of state relations and policy analysis at Indiana University, and Republican Bill Sheldrake, president and founder of Indianapolis-based research firm Policy Analytics.
Grew and Sheldrake found 16 charter schools benefitted from changes made by Bennett’s staff at to the grading formula and another 165 public and private schools also saw their final grades go up, after Bennett’s staff discovered it had applied the formula erroneously. Grew and Sheldrake said part of the problem stemmed from the loss of technical staff at the Department of Education, resulting in failure to perform “quality control” prior to the release of the final grades.
Grew and Sheldrake recommended the state move forward on developing a new school grading system that provides more transparency, more involvement from education stakeholders, and that the new system be “as simple as possible, more easily understood, and equitable.”
Bennett’s successor, Democrat Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, was also at the press conference Friday. In response to a question about whether she thought the report exonerated Bennett, Ritz said she hadn’t had time to thoroughly read the report. The allegations against Bennett were prompted by a series of emails that Ritz’s office had released to the Associated Press earlier this summer.
Ritz did say that the report released Friday confirmed her concerns that the rules for how the A-to-F grades were supposed to be awarded didn’t jibe with how Bennett and his staff at the state Department of Education implemented the grading system.
The report found that the Christel House Academy did indeed see its final grade raised after Bennett intervened. It said Christel House was considered a “benchmark” school for excellence and that the preliminary grade given to Christel House of a “C” signaled an alarm bell that something was wrong with the grading formula. Bennett’s staff concluded that part of the problem stemmed from the formula’s failure to account for the fact that Christel House, which only offered the ninth and 10th grades, was being compared to full four-year high schools.
In going back to look the complicated formula, Bennett’s staff also discovered it had erroneously used what are called “subject matter growth caps:” a provision in the grading process that makes it more difficult for schools to use good testing results in one subject area, such as English, to pull up a school’s overall grade by canceling out the poor scores in another subject area, such as math.
When Bennett’s staff removed the growth caps, which weren’t supposed to be used, the A-to-F grades for 165 schools around the state shot up.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the legislature continued their criticism of the A-to-F grading system and said the allegations made against Bennett were prompted in part by his own lack of transparency in how the grades were awarded.
“Today’s findings only confirm when standards are set in a climate of limited transparency and accountability and without the input of those being evaluated, the product is more than suspect,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson.
“The report states the previous administration made errors, rushed decisions and compromised objectivity when implementing A-to-F and instead of ensuring accuracy, they moved forward anyway. That approach does not inspire confidence in that administration, their system or the validity of their results. No matter how you dress it up, the fact remains the previous administration’s system is broken beyond repair,” Lanane said.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.