Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Report: Bennett’s Last-Minute A-F Changes ‘Plausible,’ This Year’s Grades Should Move Forward

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Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, left, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz address the media at a press conference following the release of a report analyzing the state's A-F accountability system.

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, left, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz address the media at a press conference following the release of a report analyzing the state's A-F accountability system.

Former state superintendent Tony Bennett’s staff made “plausible” changes to the state’s school rating system before releasing 2012′s A-F grades, “consistently applying” their changes to benefit not only a favorite charter school but to 180 other schools across the state, a report released Friday says.

The General Assembly’s GOP leaders commissioned Indiana University’s John Grew and policy analyst Bill Sheldrake to write the report after the Associated Press released emails showing Bennett’s staff working frantically to change the formula after discovering that favorite charter, Christel House Academy, at first appeared likely to receive a C.

Grew and Sheldrake’s report echoes a finding we reported on StateImpact three weeks ago: that Christel House was one of 165 schools whose grades went up because of the last-minute tweaks Bennett’s staff made to the A-F formula.

They also found Bennett’s staff disregarded high school scores in determining Christel House’s grade, a change they “consistently applied to 16 other schools which had analagous situations.”

Bennett, who resigned from his new job as Florida’s top education official during the scandal, released a statement calling Grew and Sheldrake’s report a “vindication.”

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

But Grew and Sheldrake also say Bennett’s staff “under-estimated administrative and technical challenges” associated with implementing the new rating formula, noting “a significant portion of the educational community did not understand or trust in the accuracy or fairness” of the system Bennett implemented.

Grew and Sheldrake note 165 schools’ grades were impacted by Bennett’s staff lifting what they called “subject matter growth caps” — we followed School Matters‘ Steve Hinnefeld in calling it “the subscore celing” — as part of a change that lifted Christel House’s grade.

UPDATE, 2:15 p.m. EST: At a press conference following the report’s release, Speaker of the House Brian Bosma stopped short of saying whether Bennett’s staff was right to use Christel House Academy — a top performer under the state’s previous accountability system — as a benchmark for designing the new system.

“A policy decision was made. That was interpretation under the rule on how you treat these transition schools — not just Christel House,” says Bosma.

For his part, Bosma says he felt like the process to design an accountability system was “moving quickly” but it was former Superintendent Bennett’s decision to proceed. In the future, he says the state needs to pilot any rewrite of the A-F system before it goes live.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees that extensive beta testing is needed as the state re-evaluates how it grades schools. State lawmakers had already agreed to a rewrite of the A-F accountability system before the changes Bennett’s staff made became apparent. She says a new system needs to take into account schools that don’t fit neatly into the elementary/middle school or high school model.

“There were discrepancies with adherence to the rule and the application of the rules,” says Ritz. “That’s something I’m going to have to wrestle with as I go forward to calculate 2012-13.”

Ritz says the Department of Education worked with Grew and Sheldrake to prepare the statistical analysis within the report and agrees with those conclusions. She says there was a “flurry of activity” on the part of Bennett’s staff to address “myriad issues” but won’t speculate on the previous administration’s motivations for doing so.

A newly-created panel will make recommendations for the rewrite to the State Board. It’s unlikely letter grades issued for the 2012-13 school year will count against schools facing possible state intervention. Only one school — Glenwood Leadership Academy in Evansville — would face takeover if it received an F this year.

UPDATE, 12 p.m. EST: Here’s the full text of Grew and Sheldrake’s report.


  • Cindi Pastore

    I don’t really get why State Impact seems intent on defending Bennett’s actions. Again, the reason that public is upset about this has nothing to do with whether the changes in grade were applied across the board after he changed Christel House grade; rather, it has to do with that Bennett would not even consider looking at the situation when asked by public schools. He ONLY acted AFTER HE RELEASED his donor’s school didn’t fare well. This shows that he had a very unfair bias towards the private and charter entities AND in particular Christel House, because of the donations to his campaign.

  • Karynb9

    Yes, by removing the subscore cap and deciding to treat CHA as a K-8 school, their score went from a C to an A. However, while those options — judged as completely plausible by this report — ended up working, they were NOT the only options explored for raising the grade of CHA. GO BACK TO THE EMAILS!!! There are some ridiculous ideas thrown about that would have done NOTHING to raise the scores of 165 other schools — which was the evidence used to determine that the changes that benefited Christel House were applied fairly to all. They talked about changing the color of presentation charts to make a high B earned by CHA look like an A. Seriously?!? The primary goal was to make CHA look good because it would make Tony Bennett look bad if CHA did NOT look good. These “tweaks” were NOT made for the sole purpose of making sure the formula would work for ALL schools and that ALL schools were getting the grades they deserved. CHA was NOT simply used as a “benchmark school” to make sure that all schools presumed to be “great” were ultimately evaluated as “great” under the A-F model. There was clear intent to make CHA look good (whether it was by changing the model or changing the colors of the presentation charts) and that makes the process unethical.

    A significantly over-looked piece of information also revealed in the emails and not addressed by this report is the fact that while schools like CHA were used as “benchmarks” to make sure that great schools got the A grades “they deserved,” John Marshall in IPS was also very clearly used as a “benchmark” — this time to make sure that any changes in the model to help CHA/165 other schools (even if you give the DOE the benefit of the doubt on the purpose of that change) would NOT provide enough of a lift to get John Marshall out of the F range (Will Krebs – “Could I get the information for all the factors that are included in the calculation for John Marshall’s grade? I need to see that to make sure my logic isn’t kicking them out.”). So, what we’re left with is a model that was tested to make sure that schools presumed to be good by the DOE were given As and schools presumed to be bad by the DOE were given Fs. Get that? With significant penalties attached to failing grades, the model was tested to make sure that John Marshall got an F. That’s deplorable.

    • Bilgewater

      Karynb9, you hit on what I think is the most significant part of why the whole system was flawed: Bennett had already decided which grade Christel House Academy would get (and apparently for John Marshall HS as well).

      The other reasons were obvious even back in 2011 when this whole scheme was unfurled: too confusing, no transparency in the determination of grade, unclear method of calculation, and so on.

      If the legislators had done their homework before the A-F system was signed into law, we wouldn’t be having these conversations in August-September 2013. THIS time when the law is re-written, it should be thoroughly tested, and given at least 1 year to be checked. In the meantime, the new accountability results should be considered *preliminary* until they’ve been field tested and school leaders have had a chance to challenge or appeal their district’s grade.

  • Jorfer88

    The softball language hides the damaging facts in here. Page 14 states the high school subscore caps were removed as well, and indicates that it is a violation of the NCLB waiver, though downplaying it: “Although the removal of the HS caps is consistent with the treatment of growth caps of the EMS schools, the rule with respect to the HS calculation is clear in requiring the subject matter caps to be in place. While IDOE’s decision did not affect many schools, it is an administrative issue that should be reviewed for HS grading in future years.” This shows a haphazard attempt to change grades with no regard to legal effects. While it may show more of an effect at a fair playing field then I thought (only 3 high schools were effected so it was the least pronounced effect), the growth possibility was higher then that for a high school (2 extra points in middle versus 1 in high school) and so it is still an apples to orange comparison.

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