Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

With Bennett Emails On Everyone's Minds, State Board Kicks Off Re-Write Of A-F Grading System

    State Board of Education member Dan Elsener speaks during a meeting as fellow board member Cari Whicker looks on.

    Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

    State Board of Education member Dan Elsener speaks during a meeting as fellow board member Cari Whicker looks on.

    For several State Board of Education members, Wednesday’s meeting was déjà vu all over again.

    Barely a year and a half after approving a then brand new system for state officials to issue letter grade performance ratings to Indiana schools, the panel formally kicked off the process of re-writing of the A-F formula again.

    Indiana lawmakers asked the board to re-open the lengthy rulemaking process in April, months before the release of emails from former state superintendent Tony Bennett‘s time in office raised concerns about how schools received their grades in 2012.

    That controversy, argues Indy Star education reporter Scott Elliott, has put Glenda Ritz — no fan of idea of issuing A-F performance ratings to schools — in the drivers’ seat of discussions about re-making the system:

    Ritz has made it clear she was never a fan of A to F but she is now driving the bus on the effort to reform it. Her team is going to recommend how the new system will work, how grades under the old system will be treated going forward and whether grades will need to be changed to atone for Bennett’s last-minute moves.

    On A to F, Ritz suddenly has considerably enhanced stature. Bennett’s system is utterly discredited. A to F as a state policy idea is suddenly the subject of a national debate about its sensibility and fairness.

    By extension, even Bennett’s other reforms are called into question, as critics can now credibly say they were vindicated when it comes to one of their most serious challenges to Bennett and other school reformers — that they couldn’t be trusted to be fair to traditional public schools.

    The question is where Ritz can go from here. Will her political enemies take a new run at stripping her powers when the legislature returns in January? Can she use her new leverage to more effectively cajole cooperation from the state board? Can she rally public support for her approach?

    Those questions will begin to be answered over the next 6 to 8 months.

    Some state lawmakers might quibble with the characterization of the system as “utterly discredited.”

    In the days since the controversy hit the front pages, Gov. Mike Pence, Indiana’s House Speaker and the Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore have reaffirmed their support of state officials issuing performance ratings to schools — to say nothing of Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, in his comments to StateImpact.

    “The question about the Bennett emails is whether the system was or was not compromised,” Kenley said this week.

    Bennett has stood by his actions while superintendent, saying he acted to correct problems with the grading formula that penalized schools undeservedly. Allies as prominent as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have offered full-throated defenses of Bennett.

    “How ironic that the false accusations coming out of Indiana centered around a school that has been successful in improving the academic achievement of poor children, the very children who had been ignored for decades under the adult-centered model of education,” Bush wrote in the The Miami Herald.

    That said, all parties — from Ritz, to Bennett, to the governor — seem to agree on the need for an investigation on how Bennett and his staff calculated the grades in 2012.

    That investigation, Ritz told reporters this week, will push back the release of this year’s A-F grades and likely put the re-write of the system on the back burner for now.


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