By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS — Before the scandal erupted over allegations that former state schools chief Tony Bennett manipulated the grades of a Republican donor’s charter school, the A to F grading system for schools was already gutted by legislators who saw it as flawed.
Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly ordered state education officials to undertake a massive re-write of the controversial grading system that rates schools using a complex formula that lawmakers – and local school officials – found confusing and unfair.
Among the toughest critics of the grading system was Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, a Republican who generally backed Bennett’s efforts to identify the state’s best- and worst-performing schools.
Kenley said he pushed for the rewrite because the grades too often “didn’t jibe with reality.”
His concern at the time wasn’t that some grades were being manipulated, as now alleged. Instead, he believed that a single grade, based on a series of student test scores, didn’t give an accurate picture of how schools were truly performing. He objected for example, to the complex formula that combined a student’s academic growth and performance on standardized tests to come up with one grade.
“I never felt you could combine those and come up with a system that was credible with people,” Kenley said.
Now Kenley, who also sits on the Senate Education Committee, fears the entire A-F grading system may be at risk, due to a quickly unfolding story involving allegations that Bennett rigged the grading system to benefit an Indianapolis charter school.
On Thursday, Bennett resigned as Florida’s education commissioner, a post he took after losing his bid for re-election last November as Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction. His resignation follows reports by The Associated Press that last year Bennett pushed his staff at the Indiana Department of Education to raise the school grade, from a C to an A, for a charter school in Indianapolis founded by a Bennett campaign donor. Bennett has denied wrongdoing.
On Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence reiterated his support for the A-F grading system, but also urged the state Department of Education to complete “a thorough and timely review” of the questions surrounding the letter grades issued for schools last year. He wants the DOE to report its findings at the next State Board of Education meeting on Aug. 7.
“Governor Pence believes in accountability and that students, parents and teachers deserve to know our state has a fair and impartial grading system that accurately describes the performances of our schools,” said Kara Brooks, Pence’s press secretary.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly this year had already mandated the State Board of Education come up with a plan by for a new system for grading schools by November that would go into effect next year.
But critics of the system want more immediate action. On Thursday, the Indiana affiliate of American Federation of Teachers called on the state to “immediately suspend” the A-F school grading system.
“Bennett’s resignation should confirm that Indiana’s flawed, and now manipulated, A-F grading system is evidence enough to call for immediate suspension of this process,” said Rick Muir, president of AFT Indiana and former president of the Anderson Federation of Teachers.
Bennett left Indiana after losing his bid for re-election to Democrat Glenda Ritz last November. On Thursday, Bennett called the AP reports “malicious and unfounded,” and blamed them on his political enemies. Bennett also called for Indiana’s inspector general to investigate his tenure at Indiana’s school chief.
The controversy has focused increased attention to the A to F school grading system that rates every school in Indiana, using student test scores and other metrics.
The grades are critical: Failing schools can be taken over by the state and schools with high grades can get more state funding. They also help determine whether low-income students living in school districts with failing grades are eligible for a private school voucher without having to first attend a public school.
The A to F school grades can also impact communities trying to woo new residents and businesses, that consider school quality in their decision making.
“You have communities where all that people remember is what grade their local school got. That’s a stigma that lasts, no matter how hard a community and school works to overcome that,” said State Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson.
Lanane said the stories on Bennett have undermined what little confidence local school officials had in the A-F school grading system. “Its credibility is totally undermined by this,” Lanane said.
He also said the allegations involving the A-F school grades “calls all other initiatives and agreements made by the previous administration into question.” He wants what he called a “full legislative review” of any agreement entered into or any program initiated during Bennett’s tenure to “ensure any actions taken were above reproach.”
“The actions of the previous administration have seriously shaken teachers and parents’ faith in the state,” Lanane said. “We must now act to rebuild that trust and ensure every Hoosier child has an opportunity at a high-quality education. The price of inaction is too high.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.