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Recalling Indiana's A-F 'fiasco'

When Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press unveiled the drama and underhanded dealings behind Indiana's A-F school grade release last fall, educators across the state were reminded of the delays and angst it created.

Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education reminded me this week of how he had written about the delays, but it wasn't until a reader pointed it out today that I was reminded of how meticulously Smith had detailed the "fiasco" that took place. Adding the email disclosures to his account puts the matter in a new and even more disturbing light.

The background knowledge of grade-fixing answers all of the questions Smith raised in his October report. Here's the Oct. 5 newsletter, with the email additions and background from the AP story in italics:

Tony Bennett: An Indiana Fiasco

Fiasco.

That is the best description of the way Tony Bennett is implementing his A-F system for school letter grades. If you think fiasco is too strong a word, consider the following facts:

1) On August 30th at the State Board meeting, Tony Bennett announced that the preliminary grades which were to be given to schools that day were not ready but would be delayed until September 10th.

2) On Sept. 10th, a memo announced a further delay.

On Sept. 12, Bennett emails Jon Gubera, Heather Neal, Dale Chu and Will Krebs asking for an update on the "rest of the grades." A separate email asks specifically about Christel House. Gubera replies that the charter school might not receive an A, but will "for sure be at least a B."

Bennett responds to say that a B will be "problematic".

Later on the 12th, Bennett shares with Heather Neal that "Goobs" had reported Christel House might not receive an A.

"Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved. I will call Dale," Neal replies.

A Sept. 13 email from Bennett to Gubera, Neal and Chu reveals his anger, noting the assurances he had made to Christel DeHaan, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long that Christel House was an A school.

Later Sept. 13 emails reveal the staff's efforts to revise the formula. By Sept. 14, Krebs and Gubera had found a way to "separate" Christel House's elementary and middle school test scores from the high school scores dragging down its grade.

Preliminary grades were finally released to schools on Sept. 19th --- 21 days late.

3) On Sept. 19th, schools began checking the state's student data lists against their own lists to prepare possible appeals which were due by Oct. 3rd. One superintendent told me it would take three staff members working full time for two weeks to check all the data.

4) On Sept. 20th, the data websites suddenly disappeared for several hours. It was later learned that corrections were being made by IDOE.

From the email accounts, LoBianco describes what was going on at DOE:

Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously on the problem and by Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75.

When the new grades were released statewide on Oct. 31, grade changes were vastly different from the February simulation, with schools seeing much milder swings in their results. The worst grades were a bit more common, with F's rising by just two percentage points to 7 percent. A's dropped just 6.5 percentage points to 41 percent of all schools.

One of those A's was Christel House.

5) On Sept. 21st, Friday, late in the afternoon, a whole new set of revised preliminary grades were posted to schools. Local officials who had been checking the data lists for two days had to start over. Fiasco. The appeals deadline was not extended.

6) On Sept. 21st, the Indiana Urban Schools Association had arranged for a meeting with Jon Gubera, director of the A-F program, to answer the myriad questions that local officials had about letter grades. The meeting was scheduled for 10:30am at Warren Township. At 8:07am, Jon Gubera cancelled his appearance by email, citing an unspecified emergency. One IUSA leader driving from Lake County got the message in Lafayette to return home. Another driving from Elkhart got the message in Carmel. Fiasco.

7) On Sept. 24th, Jon Gubera made a presentation about the A-F system at the Indiana School Boards Association conference. He was peppered with questions. Among many concerns, he confirmed to a disgruntled questioner ("How can you hold us accountable when we are not teaching them?") that the test scores of students in a special education coop school are returned and counted with the home school that sent the student to the coop, even though the student was not educated at the home school. Think about that one. Here's another one. He confirmed that K-2 schools, which have no ISTEP scores, would receive that same grade as the school or schools that they feed students to. Every school has to have a grade, even if the students in the school are not assessed. He also confirmed that the A-F system uses no confidence intervals or margin of error statistics, which were a positive feature of the federal Adequate Yearly Progress measure.

LoBianco reports that Gubera resigned shortly after the Sept. 21 email exchange and, obviously, after his troubling presentation at the ISBA conference. He went to work at the College Board with former Bennett chief of staff Todd Huston, now a state representative and member of the House's education committee.

8) On Sept. 27th, Tony Bennett, Dennis Brooks, Will Krebs and Dale Chu met with the members of the Indiana Urban Schools Association as a make-up for Jon Gubera's cancellation on Sept. 21st. Initially the IUSA scheduled the meeting at the Washington Township central office, a common meeting site due to its convenience to the interstate system for the statewide group. Tony Bennett declined to meet there and insisted on another site because his election opponent Glenda Ritz works in Washington Township. The meeting was shifted to Warren Township.

Think about that one. Does Tony Bennett as Indiana's State Superintendent, who is implementing the A-F system in every school in the state, feel that he can't even go to a meeting at the Washington Township central office, one of the larger metropolitan school districts in Marion County?

9) On Sept. 27th, at the IUSA meeting, Tony Bennett said that Jon Gubera was leaving the IDOE staff effective Sept. 28th and that Will Krbbs would take over leadership of the A-F system. It was reported that Jon was taking another job. This followed numerous rumors that I first heard on Sept. 19th that Jon Gubera had resigned or been fired.

10) On Sept. 27th, a memo announced that the State Board of Education would postpone their meeting from Oct. 3rd to Oct. 10th. The memo did not explain any reason, but the State Board by law must approve the school letter grades before they are final. The window for appeals was open until Oct. 3, so the final grades could not be approved on that day but would require a later meeting. Delaying the State Board meeting has affected other groups who plan their meetings to avoid conflicts with the State Board. The Select Commission had previously scheduled an October 10th meeting. The fall meeting of the Indiana Urban Schools Association scheduled for October 10th was cancelled.

But Tony Bennett's problems were not over.

11) On October 2nd, IDOE changed the plan once again. Now the appeals are due by Oct. 24th and public announcement of the school letter grades is scheduled for Oct. 31st, after the State Board meeting on that day.

12) Ironically, on Oct. 2nd at the same hour the IDOE memo came out announcing yet another delay, Glenda Ritz was holding a press conference in Indianapolis, saying that the growth model in the A-F system violates Indiana's accountability law (Public Law 221) which says "The department shall assess improvement in the following manner: (1) Compare each school and each school corporation with its own prior performance and not to the performance of other schools or school corporations." The labeling of high and low growth students uses comparisons to students of other schools and school corporations.

The changes continue.

13) On Oct. 4th (today), another memo made yet another change in the State Board schedule, saying now that the Oct. 10th meeting would not be held at all and that the next meeting would be on Oct. 31st.

Fiasco.

All of these are concerns about the implementation of the A-F system, which on the surface appeared this summer to be on time and on schedule.

While I did not expect the series of problems chronicled above, I did believe that the development of the system itself going back to 2010 was seriously flawed. Tony Bennett made it a priority of his first term to change the accountability system, ignoring other possible priorities like energizing early childhood education, fighting the childhood obesity crisis, reactivating the civic/citizenship mission of schools and addressing the decline of art and music programs in our schools. All of these important issues were ignored so that he could get schools to focus even more attention on language arts and math.

In my observation, Tony Bennett's efforts to change the accountability system to school letter grades have been troubled from the start:

1) In April, 2010, the public hearing on whether to change school category names to "A-F" drew 57 speakers, and 56 were opposed. Only the Indiana Chamber of Commerce was in favor.

2) In May, 2010, the State Board passed a motion to adopt "A-F" category names without specifying the metrics of how letter grades would be determined. State Board member Mike Pettibone, saying he needed to see the criteria for letter grades as part of the change, was the only vote against the plan. The motion stated that recommendations for new metrics would be considered in September 2010 and used for letter grades in 2011.

3) In July, 2010, a second hearing was required because IDOE violated procedural notification rules in the first hearing to the point that it did not satisfy legal standards. Seven more speakers appeared, all opposed to the plan in a meeting that was minimally publicized.

4) In June, 2011, Tony Bennett told the State Board that the new letter grade metrics would not be ready for 2011 grades, so the old system would be used to give letter grades in August, 2011. No motion to proceed in this manner was made by the State Board even though their motion in May 2010 cited above stated that the new system would be used in 2011. With nothing more than an announcement from Tony Bennett, the new system was put off for a year.

5) In January, 2012, the only public hearing on the new A-F plan was held in Indianapolis. All 35 speakers, representing a variety of groups and individuals, opposed the plan. This time the Indiana Chamber of Commerce was among the opponents.

6) In March, 2012, as the General Assembly was wrapping up, enough complaints had reached the ears of legislators that a Select Commission on Education was created in the final days of the session to review, among other topics, the A-F system.

7) In April, 2012, the first meeting of the Select Commission was scheduled on the A-F system. The agenda named speakers from IDOE followed by public comments, and many drove in from around the state to testify during the public comments portion of the meeting. Tony Bennett led off four IDOE speakers in a three-hour description of the A-F, a presentation that went on so long that the public was not given a chance to speak that day. Fiasco.

8) In June, 2012, the public finally got a chance to speak and many from around the state took advantage and expressed a variety of deep concerns in a meeting that lasted four hours.

In summary, you have above a narrative of the flawed implementation since August and then a narrative of the flawed substantive development over the past three years. Can anyone read this history and say that Tony Bennett has led our schools with wisdom and effectiveness in making this choice to change our accountability system?

We already had an accountability system which had the support of all stakeholders before he initiated these changes in 2010, an established system with plenty of teeth in it. Just ask IPS and Gary. He has ended up with a system that even the Indiana Chamber of Commerce opposes and is so complex that the launch has been delayed three times. For Hoosier educators, this turmoil is taking valuable time away from other important programs for students, but local school officials have to follow through with the A-F data checks because the very existence of the school can be in jeopardy of state takeover due to the letter grades.

And now, Tony Bennett has announced in his "State of Education" address that he wants to use this same A-F system, this same flawed system, to allow him to take over whole school districts, not just schools. Voters must be aware of his plans.

It took a lot of brass for him to make that proposal using an A-F system that so far has been a disaster. It is good that this proposal comes during the election campaign so that voters can have their say on this.

Every voter needs to hear about his overreach so they can tell him "no" at the ballot box. State takeover of local school boards based on a flawed and unvalidated measuring system is over the top.

The urgency is clear. Please forward this information to other voters who are unaware of this issue and may agree that Tony Bennett should not be given the tools to take over whole school districts. Voters need this information to make this election a referendum on whether to support Tony Bennett's policies or whether to replace him with Glenda Ritz.

This is one more reason why I am supporting Glenda Ritz for state superintendent in the election. A vote for Glenda Ritz is a vote to revise the flawed A-F system.

I urge you to talk with neighbors who trust you about the issues and enlist their support for Glenda Ritz. It will take all of us doing this to win this election.

I hope you will help us escape this fiasco.

Best wishes,

Vic Smith

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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