Indiana

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Bennett Emails: A Look At How The Sausage Of Policy Is Made?

State superintendent Tony Bennett delivers his concession speech at Lucas Oil Stadium Tuesday evening.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Tony Bennett, then Indiana's state superintendent, on election night in November 2012.

Tony Bennett’s emails instructing state education officials to reshape Indiana’s A-F school rating system with one charter school in mind “reveal the sausage-making nature of the process,” blogs Greg Forster:

Any kind of evaluation system must involve qualitative as well as quantitative testing… Ultimately you have no choice but to pick some examples of [schools] you presuppose to be very good or very bad (or in the middle, for that matter) based on some kind of opinion — maybe yours, maybe your organization’s, maybe a consensus of experts, maybe a popular majority — and see if your system ranked those cases in accordance with the presupposed opinion. It is logically impossible to remove this element of judgment. You just can’t fully test a system for evaluating schools without at some point picking out some super-schools and asking “did these score well?”

It would be naïve in the extreme to think that any set of political actors would carry out that reality check in any way other than something like what the Bennett emails reveal.

The lesson here is not “Bennett is corrupt” but “all educational standards privilege someone’s opinion of what is a good school, and government privileges the opinion of powerful interests.”

Ditto Fordham’s Mike Petrilli:

He had spent months (and much political capital) building an A–F accountability system for Indiana’s schools. These systems are as much art as science (more akin to baking cookies than designing a computer), and when they tried out the recipe the first time, it flopped. One of Indiana’s brightest stars, a charter school known to be super high performing, ended up with a C. Clearly, the recipe needed fine tuning.

In 2011, StateImpact profiled Christel House Academy, the charter school in question.

At the time, state data showed that, among Indiana schools with more than 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced price lunch, Christel House had higher test scores than every other charter school and all but a handful of traditional public schools.

Former state superintendent Tony Bennett delivers a speech in Indianapolis.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Former state superintendent Tony Bennett delivers a speech in Indianapolis.

“We wanted a system that passed the face validity test, and the face validity test is that there are schools that are A schools and they should obviously be that,” Bennett told StateImpact on Monday.

So do Petrilli and Forster have a point? Are Bennett’s e-mails no more than a window into the sausage-making process of state policy? University of Texas professor Julian Vasquez Heilig isn’t buying the argument.

“All accountability levels and ratings are subjective and arbitrary,” he writes on his blog, Cloaking Inequity. “They have absolutely no empirical or evidence base.”

School Matters blogger Steve Hinnefeld suggests Bennett’s actions may not be all that different from those of school officials in Georgia, who currently face criminal charges for cheating on standardized tests:

Bennett told the AP he didn’t do any favors for DeHaan and his only concern was to make sure the system was fair for combined schools. But the emails belie that claim. They show Bennett worried about results for Christel House and Christel House alone… I never guessed Bennett and his staff would be so cynical as to manipulate the grades to bump Christel House all the way from a C to an A.

“How much longer will [state] lawmakers themselves continue to support a charade designed and maintained to please wealthy donors?” adds Karen Francisco in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

More reactions here — and add yours in the comments below.

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