News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

August 18, 2013

EDITORIAL: Problems within A-to-F school ratings bear blame for anxiety

TERRE HAUTE — The long unexplained calculations of the A-to-F school grading formula caused anxiety in school communities across Indiana.

The revelation that former state superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff scrambled to change the formula to ensure that a charter school run by top campaign donor received an A instead of a C caused anxiety, too.

Computer-system disruptions in the implementation of ISTEP tests, taken by Indiana students last spring, caused anxiety, as well.

Newspaper and television reports exposing and detailing those problems did not cause such anxieties. The problems caused the anxieties in Hoosiers who deserve to decide whether the state’s school accountability system is itself accountable.

Last week, Gov. Mike Pence rejected calls for a one-year suspension of the A-to-F letter grades for schools across Indiana. In his statement, Pence blamed the media for anxiety over the A-to-F school ratings. “I don’t think we should take a timeout on accountability,” Pence said Thursday, as reported by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “We’ve got too many kids in this state that find themselves in under-performing and, in some cases, failing schools. And high standards and high accountability is and has been an important aspect of how we’ve made progress in Indiana.”

High standards are indeed important. So is a smooth, well-prepared, transparent method of setting and carrying out such standards. Few realistic people see such qualities in Indiana’s A-to-F school rating formula. Certainly, the situation surrounding the changing of the school grade for the Christel House charter school in Indianapolis raises doubt. The facility is operated by influential Republican campaign contributor Christel DeHaan. The changes were revealed by an Associated Press investigation of internal emails exchanged between Bennett and members of his Department of Education staff.

The questionable nature of the changes led to calls for Bennett to resign as Florida’s schools commissioner, an appointed job he took in January after he lost re-election in Indiana last November. Bennett defended his actions, denied any wrongdoing and explained that the Christel House grades were changed to fix a flaw in the system that might penalize schools with odd grade configurations, including that particular K-through-10 charter school. However, four Indianapolis Public Schools officials say four IPS schools were denied similar consideration in 2011, which would have prevented them from receiving an F and undergoing a state takeover.

Indiana legislators mandated a new school rating system last spring, before the emails were discovered. In the wake of the scandal, legislative leaders called for a review of the A-to-F system. The governor said he hopes the study will explain questions about the system.

The questions and doubts aren’t just coming from the press or teachers unions. Superintendents and school board members from across Indiana are wary, too. As one superintendent told the Shelbyville News, “A part of me feels disappointed. We worked extremely hard last year as a staff, really shifting our focus toward becoming a data-driven decision-making organization,” he said, listing several extensive initiatives, including expanded remediation “aimed at driving all three [district schools] and the corporation to exemplary A status. Unfortunately, the credibility of the state’s model is now unknown.”

Problems within the state system are to blame for such anxiety.

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