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Report: Put school interventions on hold until A-F system is fixed

INDIANAPOLIS – Adjustments made to boost a charter school’s accountability grade from a C to an A were “plausible,” according to a bipartisan report issued Friday on the state’s troubled A-F accountability system for schools.

But the analysis from consultants John Grew and Bill Sheldrake also found some errors and questionable management of the system under then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

Long said Bennett’s administration underestimated the challenges of crafting the rules and staffing changes complicated the process – “leading possibly to a rush in the end to implement it.”

He went on to say he saw “nothing nefarious,” in the grades.

The report also included recommendations for crafting a new A-F system, which won’t be in place until the 2014-2015 school year, as well as how to deal with the flawed system in the meantime.

For instance, the report encouraged policymakers not to subject schools to state intervention until a new system is implemented. This would impact only a handful of schools that might drop into a sixth year in the lowest category.

For years, Indiana schools have received annual accountability rankings based mostly on student test scores. When Bennett came to office he changed the categories to reflect an A-F grade. Then he pushed a new calculation for the grades that many educators didn’t understand or trust.

The meat of the report focused on the 2011-2012 A-F grades given to schools under that new calculation.

It found that Christel House Academy’s initial grade was a C, causing an “energetic response” from Bennett and staff to find solutions for what they perceived to be an unfair resolute.

Christel House was essentially used as a “quality control indicator” or benchmark school when testing the new data because of its history of excellence.

Two adjustments made to determine the final grade “were plausible and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances,” the report said.

One of those changes was an error in the computer programming that affected hundreds of schools. But the other was a policy change that allowed state education officials to throw out failing Algebra tests at Christel House and a small number of similarly-situated schools.

Even before emails about the Christel House change leaked, legislators had passed a law to move away from the formula in the future. The new formula will focus more on a student’s improvement in scores rather than just a passage rate.

By law the Indiana Department of Education must still issue grades until then under the suspect formula.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz – who defeated Bennett last November - said she didn’t know when the 2012-13 grades would be given.

“We have to wrestle with some decisions,” she said. “We need an accountability system that is fair, transparent and trustworthy.”

Bennett declared vindication following the issuance of the report Friday. He resigned from his post as Florida education chief amid the scandal.

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

“I hope the unfounded political attacks will now stop and we can focus our attention on providing a great education to Indiana students and building on the success of the past four years.”

Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma noted the importance of any new A-F system having a pilot year – a lesson learned from the most recent breakdown.

And a task force has been appointed to advise the State Board of Education on new grades.

“What has happened has happened,” Long said. “We can’t be bogged down in quicksand by what’s happened in the past. Our task is to move forward.”

Grew and Sheldrake also recommended the 2011-12 grades be checked for errors discovered relative to high school grades. Three high schools have inaccurate grades though none of them are from northeast Indiana.