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Why Christel House Still Sticks Out After Friday’s Report On Bennett’s A-F Changes

State superintendent Tony Bennett shakes hands with Broad Ripple High School students at an October 2012 press event highlighting the release of the A-F school ratings.

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

State superintendent Tony Bennett shakes hands with Broad Ripple High School students at an October 2012 press event highlighting the release of the A-F school ratings.

There were two last-minute changes former state superintendent Tony Bennett’s staff made to Indiana’s A-F system in 2012 — two changes that, together, lifted more than 160 schools’ grades.

But only one school’s final grade went up because of both changes: Christel House Academy.*

That’s one tidbit from the analysis of Bennett’s changes to the A-F formula we released in mid-August, confirmed Friday by a report from independent policy analysts John Grew and Bill Sheldrake.

The analysis they released has done little to end the debate over Bennett’s actions — witness this back-and-forth on Twitter between former Bennett chief-of-staff Heather Neal and Indianapolis radio host Amos Brown. Both Bennett’s defenders and critics can latch onto something in the report to bolster their case.

Paradoxically, even after Grew and Sheldrake formally identified 165 elementary and middle schools whose grades went up because of the changes, Christel House Academy’s grade is still central to how you interpret Bennett’s intent.

It’s just like we wrote three weeks ago: Is Christel House’s grade proof that Bennett would stop at nothing to change the system to help a favorite charter school? Or does Grew and Sheldrake’s finding — that changes to the A-F formula were “plausible” and “consistently applied” across the state — prove Bennett’s staff was trying to eliminate quirks in the grading system, as the former state superintendent has said all along?

One short excerpt of Grew and Sheldrake’s 20-page report:

Dr. Bennett was keenly interested in learning the grade for the Christel House Academy as soon as it was finalized. (Through our interviews, we learned that Dr. Bennett had been under considerable pressure to design an accountability system that was not deemed harsh to charter schools or urban schools. In response to such concerns, he repeatedly stated that Christel House Academy, which was widely viewed as a successful charter school in an urban environment, would do well under the new system.) When the school’s grade was initially determined to be a C, it was a surprise to Dr. Bennett and senior DOE staff. The efforts to “raise the Christel House grade” was, according to a wide range of testimony, both an attempt to save the credibility of the New Accountability Model and a desire to treat a recognized good school fairly.

“Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report,” Grew and Sheldrake conclude. The authors, who completed their investigation at the request of the Indiana General Assembly’s top Republican leaders, later told reporters their analysis neither exonerates nor condemns Bennett.

Since Grew and Sheldrake don’t stake out a position on Bennett’s intent, both his supporters and his opponents have been left to decipher the evidence themselves.

“Today’s findings only confirm when standards are set in a climate of limited transparency and accountability and without the input of those being evaluated, the product is more than suspect,” Indiana Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, wrote in a statement.

“There was clear intent to make [Christel House Academy] look good,” one longtime commenter points out, adding, “That makes the process unethical.”

But Bennett released a written statement saying the school rating system was not perfect, but the report shows he acted appropriately.

“The report clearly shows that accusations of manipulation of the A-F system for a single school are false and malicious,” Bennett wrote. “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 benefitted and will continue to benefit from a clear and rigorous school accountability system.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess writes on his EdWeek blog:

Upon seeing Grew and Sheldrake’s verdict, I flashed on former Reagan Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan’s famous question: “What office do I go to to get my reputation back?”… It’s time to give Bennett his due, proffer the apologies he so richly deserves, and try to do a better job next time of not rushing to judgment.

As we wrote Friday:

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.

*Christel House is one of three schools whose grades went up from a C to an A. Cynthia Heights Elementary near Evansville and Southeast Dubois County’s Southridge Middle School both saw their grades jump two letters when Bennett’s team lifted the “subscore ceiling.” Christel House’s grade also benefited when Bennett’s team disregarded the school’s “awful” high school scores.

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