Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

How Tony Bennett's Last-Minute A-F Changes Lifted 165 Indiana School Grades

Click here to view a map of 165 schools whose grades improved because of a last-minute change former state superintendent Tony Bennett's staff made to Indiana's A-F grading system.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Click here to view a map of 165 schools whose grades improved because of a change former state superintendent Tony Bennett's staff made to Indiana's A-F grading system.

Though it’s received the most media attention in the controversy that led to ex-Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett’s resignation, Christel House Academy was not the only school to benefit from state officials’ changes to Indiana’s fledgling school grading system in 2012.

After studying last year’s A-F rating data, a StateImpact analysis has identified 165 schools across the state — including Christel House — that saw higher final grades than they would have if Bennett’s staff hadn’t tweaked the formula roughly six weeks before releasing 2012′s results.

Take a look at this map and search this table to see if your school is one of those 165.

Bennett’s staff does not directly mention the change in emails the Associated Press published this month. From those messages, it’s not apparent state officials made the change with Christel House alone in mind.

The finding does, however, show how a relatively minor alteration to the A-F grading scale can have statewide implications.

Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett.

StateImpact Indiana

Former state superintendent Tony Bennett.

But it’s unclear whether what the finding could mean for Bennett’s legacy in Indiana or for the future of the state’s system for issuing performance ratings to schools — a system now undergoing its second re-write in as many years.

Does the finding support the case against Bennett, suggesting he manipulated the grading system to make these changes? Or does it bolster his defense, showing Bennett’s staff made a sincere effort to fix problems with the system that extend beyond Christel House’s grade?

The Half-Answered Question

The emails the Associated Press published two weeks ago only half-answered the question of how state officials managed to bump Christel House’s grade from a C to an A.

As School Matters blogger Steve Hinnefeld writes, the “loophole” Bennett’s staff found in the grading rules that allowed them to exclude Christel House’s poor high school level data only accounts for the school’s jump from a C to a B.

Then, thanks to a tip from a commenter on his blog, Hinnefeld figured out how the school jumped from a B to an A. (He, along with the IU Center for Evaluation and Education Policy’s Terry Spradlin and The New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop, helped check our math.)

The change, it turned out, didn’t just impact Christel House. Dozens of other schools were impacted.

The Change That Turned Many B’s Into A’s

Under Indiana’s A-F system, an elementary or middle school earns its grade from the average of its test scores in two subjects, English and math — their so-called English and math “subscores.”

Those subscores — like the final grades themselves — were calculated on a four-point scale. But schools could earn up to six total points if they earned bonuses for the number of students who made academic growth.

At least initially, though, state officials feared too many bonus points for one subject might cancel out a bad grade in another subject. They set up their calculations to limit schools’ ability to earn more than four points in any subject area, even with bonus points.

“The rationale for that,” says Hinnefeld, “was that [state officials] don’t really want to give an A to a school that was doing great in math but really poorly in English.”

In fact, the AP released an email dated September 13, 2012 showing a state education official factoring these limits into Christel House Academy’s grade. His initial run showed the school received a C, thanks in part to these bonus point limits.

Just five days later, someone posted new directions for calculating grades on the DOE’s website. This new document loosened the guidelines for counting bonus points toward a school’s grade.

“You don’t have anybody who thinks [Christel House Academy] was a C school… [But] it does appear that rather than just trying to fix that glitch, there was then an effort to say, ‘How do we get this to an A school?’ That’s more problematic.”
—Andrew Rotherham, Bellwether Education Partners
Buoyed by surplus bonus points for either math or English — points they could use under the newly-changed guidelines — the grades for Christel House and 164 other schools increased.

(For those of you who want more detail on how the state’s formula changed and how we identified the 165 schools, we’ve set up a page explaining both processes in greater detail.)

Do These 165 Schools Deserve These Higher Grades?

Most of the schools’ grades increased from B’s to A’s after this change. A few others saw B’s when they would have received C’s if the grading system remained unchanged. No schools saw increases to C’s or D’s as a result, though.

Hinnefeld, who covered education at The Bloomington Herald-Times for a dozen years before getting out of newspapers, says he’s happy for the schools with which he’s familiar that benefited because of the change. In an interview, Hinnefeld said:

It’s probably better to do no harm with the grades and give people the benefit of a doubt and give schools the benefit a doubt. If you raise a few grades, that’s good, and if other schools didn’t benefit, then maybe they should’ve. But there is, I’m sure, from a quote-unquote reform perspective, an argument that maybe you are doing some harm with telling people they’re an A school when really they’re a B school.

Second graders in teacher Courtney McCollough's class play fraction games on the last day of summer school. An advanced curriculum

Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana (File)

Second graders at Christel House Academy play a math game in 2011.

So was Christel House an A school?

Bennett did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story. But when he spoke to StateImpact earlier this month, he said he not only felt it deserved an A — he advocated for the school to receive a high grade.

“Frankly, I made many comments where Christel House was an A school and I believe that any grading system you come up with should render that,” Bennett said.

But Andrew Rotherham, a co-founder of the non-profit group Bellwether Education Partners who blogs at Eduwonk, says there’s a fine line between fixing an anomaly in the grading system and showing favoritism for a school. He told StateImpact earlier this month:

It’s important that policymakers be able to pretty nimbly change things if there’s problems, rather than digging their heels in under political pressure to appear tough or being locked into a system that doesn’t work. These systems clearly don’t have a lot of credibility if they label really good schools as being low performing. It just erodes the system… You don’t have anybody who thinks [Christel House Academy] was a C school. People think it’s a better school.

The issue and where this gets complicated is based on the e-mails that have been released… it does appear that rather than just trying to fix that glitch, there was then an effort to say, ‘How do we get this to an A school?’ That’s more problematic.

Rotherham, however, has written that Bennett’s actions were not bad enough to warrant his resignation and that press coverage of the controversy has been “overblown.”

‘Transparent’ Or ‘Secretive’ Process?

“It was reasonable that there would be multiple iterations, simulations, projections and changes until there’s confidence in the system. A lot of public schools received better scores than initially projected… [But] there’s just a cloud of doubt and skepticism.”
—Terry Spradlin, IU’s Center for Evaluation & Education Policy
Prior to his resignation in Florida, Bennett disputed charges his office was not transparent about changes they made while implementing Indiana’s A-F grading formula through late 2011 and 2012:

The whole process [of setting up the rating system] was a public-iterated process. We believe we had the concepts right but frankly there were some nuances to the system that we had to address. We did it, but I would argue that there wasn’t anything secretive about any of this… This is one of those things where obviously people will formulate their own opinions. I don’t think you or anyone else has ever accused us of being secretive or hiding from people or anything like that.

But even those who support either the former Indiana schools chief or A-F grading say a lack of transparency was a problem.

Policy analyst Anne Hyslop, who researches school accountability, says it’s not clear that Bennett’s staff made schools aware of the changes, undercutting their argument that they were simply trying to improve the grading system. She said in an interview:

There could be a good reason for [the change in counting the bonus points.] You really want to focus on school growth — which is where the bonus points come from and allow the schools to get such high grades. By removing the cap, schools are getting their full bonus points for having high growth and it would encourage schools and educators in the future to shoot for that.

You can make that explanation, but by not making publicly making that announcement, I think it undermines faith in accountability system and makes people question whether other changes were made that didn’t have as reasonable an explanation.

What Comes Next?

Leaders of the Indiana General Assembly and current schools chief Glenda Ritz have launched parallel investigations into the 2012 grades. While Ritz would only say last week her staff had found “manipulation” of those grades, she said the investigation would cause “great delays” in the release of this year’s A-F ratings.

“There’s just a cloud of doubt and skepticism” surrounding A-F grading now, says IU’s Terry Spradlin. He told StateImpact:

It was reasonable that there would be multiple iterations, simulations, projections and changes until there’s confidence in the system. A lot of public schools received better scores than initially projected. But the bottom line is this: With this revelation of information about apparent manipulation of the system to benefit a few schools, even though a large number of schools benefited over the horizon of the changes until the accountability system was finalized…  the level of trust in the system certainly is in doubt.

But Gov. Mike Pence and key lawmakers have also expressed their desire to continue A-F grading, though a forthcoming re-write of the rating system means state officials will give out future grades based on new metrics.


  • Karynb9

    There are still two pretty major problems with what happened. The first is that the way Christel House went from a C to a B was by completely throwing out the scores of 10th graders in their building. Christel House’s grade wasn’t high enough…we can blame the poor performance of 10th graders on the Algebra ECA for that…so let’s just completely throw out their scores. That’s still a pretty major problem.

    Second of all, no emails went out saying, “Oh my gosh! Hold the press releases! Cancel the conference call with the media! According to the calculations, LaVille Elementary School has a B! The system must be flawed! We need to get this fixed, people!” There was no mention of concerns over the fact that Shamrock Springs Elementary and Southridge Middle School and Belzer Middle School and Daleville Elementary School weren’t going to get an A. Bennett’s email said, “Have you been able to take a peek at Christel House?” The schools discussed in the “I told everyone they would be an A” email were all charter schools (Herron, Christel House, Tindley, and Signature). Actually, there WAS one other school discussed in terms of how changing the system to boost Christel House’s grade would impact another school’s grade — and that was just making sure that the new scale wouldn’t actually IMPROVE the grade for John Marshall in IPS. Changes were made with the intent of improving the grade for Christel House. Any other improvements were simply from a ripple effect.

    I guess the question that people need to ask is that if Christel House had somehow already earned an A in the initial run of the A-F model data, would these changes have been made that ended up improving other schools’ grades? If removing the 10th grade ECA scores from Christel House had been enough to lift it from a C to an A after just that one step, would the ceiling still have been lifted and these other schools’ grades improved? Well, we DO know that once enough changes were made to get Christel House up to an A, no MORE changes were made to the model and it was apparently deemed “done.”

    The root of the problem remains that teachers and schools were being evaluated based on a system where arrows were shot into a wall, and THEN someone came along to paint the targets.

  • Karynb9

    Sorry. Another thought. Here’s another way to look at it. Let’s say the Christel House “scandal” never happened. Now, let’s say that the A-F grades (even in a “revised” form) are released in a few months, and John Marshall in IPS ends up with a B. The grade looks good…improvements are obviously being made…and the Board of Ed decides to release them from state intervention upon Ritz’s recommendation (I know, I know — the SBOE doesn’t do ANYTHING upon Ritz’s recommendation, but just forget about that for a moment).

    A couple of months later, StateImpact files a FOIA request to get emails from the DOE related to Marshall’s grade on the A-F model. Those emails reveal that initial calculations actually earned John Marshall a D. Glenda Ritz emailed some of her staff saying that wasn’t going to be acceptable — she had witnessed several great initiatives going on at John Marshall…discipline referrals and suspension rates were down…kids were clearly learning and engaged…she had actually just told a few members of the IPS school board a couple of weeks ago that John Marshall was NOT going to be anything less than a B school. So, her staff needed to go back and revise the model (of course, they needed to make sure that the revisions didn’t accidentally lift a couple of charter schools out of the F range that THEY were in). They made some changes and got John Marshall’s grade up to a B. Those same changes lifted the grades of 150 other schools by a letter grade or two as well.

    How would the ed reform community respond to THAT?

  • Cindi Pastore

    You don’t see that the LACK of transparency about this whole matter, and the fact that he ignored pleas from PUBLIC schools for a reconsideration of the factors and only sought to change things when his donor school was affected as a PROBLEM of ethics? Because that was the problem with Bennett in a nutshell- that he didn’t care about the PUBLIC schools and only sought to promote private enterprises.

  • f


  • Greg Welch

    I still find it difficult to understand how anyone can possibly believe that a school with a 33% pass rate on any of the vaunted state skills test could be an exemplary school–especially when many of the people defending the grade change are the same people saying that such test scores are necessary and truly indicative of school performance. Unfortunately, many seem to downplay this when defending the “inside baseball” in this instance.

  • Jorfer88

    The A-F system had a very strict criteria for an A, and Tony Bennetts team’s fanciful bar (which he was sure Christel House would meet because it was just that amazing) is solely responsible. While the differences between the letter grades from C on down was 1 point. The difference for an A was .49 points (3.51 to 4.0). It was not even half a point on a system that operated on multiples of .25. Therefore, the range was in reality only a .25 for an A. They didn’t make a small change to correct it. Instead they made the range much larger by making it a 2.49 point range (3.51 to a 6). And if this was a change to improve the system as has been alleged, the high school cap of 4.0 would have been lifted as well to make the playing field even.

  • Doug Martin

    Andy Rotherham is a complete phony. He has made so much money in the corporate school movement that he should be deleted from any serious conversation about public education. From Bill Clinton to Bill Gates, this Mind Trust board member once was the leader of the hedge fund manager Democrats for Education Reform and gets most of this money from Walmart and Gates.

  • benevolus2

    The fictional story broke on July 29th and it literally took 18 days before anyone crafted a question using critical thinking skills- “Does the finding support the case against Bennett, suggesting he manipulated the grading system to make these changes? Or does it bolster his defense, showing Bennett’s staff made a sincere effort to fix problems with the system that extend beyond Christel House’s grade?”
    Whooooooaaaaa – you mean there is another side to the story than the truncated, controlled one released by Glenda Ritz and her union employees that are doing union (personal) work on state taxpayer time?????!!!! Seriously did ANYONE pause to consider the source and think, ‘hey, i probably should take a deeper look before passing judgement.’ Btw, I haven’t heard one person say anything positive about Tom LoBianco’s integrity and character as a journalist. Hmmm…no surprise Ritz’s team (union) wanted him to be their leak.

    Kyle, at least you finally pose the question. However, your diction and that off your “experts” is still painfully biased.

    For example, you state definitively that “Bennett changed the formula or changed the system.” What if one stated ‘Bennett made corrections to the formula.’? Or simply, “There may be some questions about the formula?”

    You also state that Bennett was, “Not transparent.” About what? Corrections before publication are made all of the time without any need to tell anyone. How about if I request the rough drafts of every article written by every journalist on this topic, and when i find “changes to article,” may i make charges of “changing the narrative” and “not being transparent about it”? No, that would be ridiculous – what matters is the published piece and its accuracy. Of course, herein lies the problem with the media and their “experts,” since they have published what will ultimately be their rough drafts. After the facts come out and are explained, what shall be the appropriate indictment of the media (and the those feeding this story to create misdirection)? Shall we scream “Media Scandal!, Media lies! Media lacks Integrity! Media lacks critical thinking skills! Media DOES NOT LET THE FACTS GET IN THE WAY OF A STORY.”

    Not to worry the National Enquirer is made for folks of this ilk.

  • jeff spitler

    bennett is an economic and educational terrotist! he has destroyed the value of homes in hammond, ind. and placed a burden on all families children with respect to their current educational efforts. you should be held accountable!!!

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