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Last updated: Sat. Sep. 07, 2013 - 02:42 am EDT

Charter’s grade change ‘plausible’

Bennett feels vindicated by report

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SACS superintendent to co-chair task force

Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Steve Yager will co-chair a task force making recommendations on how best to design a new A-F accountability system for Indiana schools.

The panel was created through a memorandum of understanding among Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma. Each entity appointed four members, with Ritz as the 17th member and co-chair.

Bosma and Long announced Friday they have chosen Yager as the other co-chair.

Ritz also named her members of the panel: Evansville teacher Keith Gambill; Gary Principal Cheryl Ramsey; Portage Superintendent E. Ric Frataccia; and technical adviser Michele Walker of the Indiana Department of Education.

The group must have recommendations finished by Nov. 1.

INDIANAPOLIS — Adjustments made to boost a charter school’s accountability grade from a C to an A were plausible, according to a bipartisan report issued Friday on the state’s troubled A-F accountability system for schools.

But the analysis from consultants John Grew and Bill Sheldrake also found some errors and questionable management of the system under then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long said Bennett’s administration underestimated the challenges of crafting the rules, and staffing changes complicated the process – “leading possibly to a rush in the end to implement it.”

But Long went on to say that he saw “nothing nefarious” in the grades.

The report also included recommendations for crafting a new A-F system, which won’t be in place until the 2014-15 school year, as well as how to deal with the flawed system in the meantime.

For instance, the report encouraged policymakers not to subject schools to state intervention until a new system is implemented. This would affect only a handful of schools that are at risk of spending a sixth year ranked in the lowest grade category.

For years, Indiana schools have received annual accountability rankings based mostly on student test scores. When Bennett came to office, he changed the categories to reflect an A-F grade. Then he pushed a new calculation for the grades that many educators didn’t understand or trust.

The meat of Friday’s report focused on the 2011-12 A-F grades given to schools under that new calculation.

It found that Christel House Academy’s initial grade was a C, causing an “energetic response” from Bennett and his staff to find solutions for what they perceived to be an unfair result.

Christel House was essentially used as a “quality control indicator,” or benchmark school, when testing the new data because of its history of excellence.

Two adjustments made to determine the final grade “were plausible, and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances,” the report said.

One of those changes was an error in the computer programming that affected hundreds of schools. The other was a policy change that allowed state education officials to throw out failing algebra test scores at Christel House as well as at a small number of similarly situated schools.

Even before emails about Christel House’s grade change were leaked, legislators had passed a law to move away from the formula in the future. The new formula will focus more on students’ improvement in scores rather than just a passage rate.

By law, the Indiana Department of Education must still issue grades under the existing formula until then.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz – who defeated Bennett in last November’s election – said she didn’t know when the 2012-13 grades would be issued.

“We have to wrestle with some decisions,” she said. “We need an accountability system that is fair, transparent and trustworthy.”

Bennett declared vindication with the release of the report. He had resigned from his post as Florida’s education commissioner Aug. 1 amid the scandal.

“The report clearly shows that accusations of manipulation of the A-F system for a single school are false and malicious,” he said Friday.

“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,” Bennett said.

“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.”

Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma noted the importance of any new A-F system having a pilot year – a lesson learned from the most recent breakdown.

And a task force has been appointed to help advise the State Board of Education on new grades.

“What has happened has happened,” Long said. “We can’t be bogged down in quicksand by what’s happened in the past. Our task is to move forward.”

nkelly@jg.net


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