News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 2, 2013

Fate of Indiana school grading system uncertain

INDIANAPOLIS — A school grading system designed to hold Indiana schools accountable faced an uncertain future Thursday after the state’s former schools chief resigned as Florida’s education commissioner amid revelations his staff changed a grade for a top Republican donor’s charter school.

AFT Indiana, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, called for an immediate suspension of the A-to-F grading system, saying former Superintendent Tony Bennett’s “unethical and deplorable” actions made a suspension necessary.

School superintendents around the state said they don’t want an accountability system “connected to corruption and manipulation.”

And Gary Superintendent Cheryl L. Pruitt demanded the state overturn its takeover of Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy, saying the grading system that led to the takeover was tainted.

“Bennett’s resignation should confirm that Indiana’s flawed, and now manipulated, A-to-F grading system is evidence enough to call for immediate suspension of this process,” said Rick Muir, president of AFT Indiana.

The tensions are likely to set off an internal tug-of-war between Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Bennett’s allies on the State Board of Education.

Ritz launched an internal review of the grading system Tuesday. Republican Gov. Mike Pence said Thursday he supports a review of the system but did not say whether grades issued by Bennett should be suspended.

Bennett resigned his job as Florida education commissioner Thursday, just days after The Associated Press published emails showing his staff changed Indiana’s grading system to ensure a school founded by top Republican donor Christel DeHaan got an A.

Bennett denies giving special treatment to the Christel House Academy, and DeHaan and school officials said they were not involved in discussions about the grade.

But the discovery of the emails has raised questions about the grade system’s credibility. Indiana uses A-to-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need first to spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive. A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.

The Indianapolis Star found two takeover schools that would have benefited if they’d received the same treatment that DeHaan’s school did, and school superintendents said the revelations this week should invalidate all the grades Bennett issued.

Bennett said he decided to resign because he didn’t want the “distraction” the emails had created to detract from Florida’s education efforts.

Wendy Robinson, superintendent of the Fort Wayne Community Schools, said Bennett’s actions damaged the concept of accountability itself.

“We don’t want ‘accountability,’ the term, to become passé. We don’t want it be so connected with corruption and manipulation,” she said.  

Pence urged the Department of Education to move swiftly on its review, saying he wants results at next week’s State Board of Education meeting.

Ritz did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Regardless of what action the state takes now, it’s unlikely Washington will revoke its support of the sweeping school improvement plan Bennett wrote as Indiana’s school chief.

Indiana’s 140-page plan requires states to give each school an A-to-F grade based on student achievement, graduation rates and career readiness. The state also set as a goal for 90 percent of its students to be performing at grade level, 90 percent of students to graduate and 25 percent of students to be ready for college or the workplace.

In exchange for the pledge, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave Indiana permission to ignore parts of the No Child Left Behind law, such as all students performing at grade level in math and reading by 2014.

Carmel Martin, a former top adviser to Duncan until earlier this year, said it’s unlikely that waiver will be revoked.

“From the department’s standpoint, they wouldn’t do it unless it were in the best interest of the children of Indiana,” said Martin, now a senior official at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.

Martin also said that even if something was wrong with implementing the system, that doesn’t mean it should necessarily be scrapped.

The Education Department has given 39 states and the District of Columbia permission to ignore parts of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Law. But that still leaves 11 states — giants California and Texas among them — operating under the law and set to fall short of its requirements.

 

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