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Column: Education reform job threw state deeper in mess

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iNDIANAPOLIS — Not so fast.

That’s the message from a couple of independent investigators who looked into alleged irregularities in the state’s A-F grading system for schools.

State officials and education leaders would be wise to pay attention.

For years now, Republicans pushing hard for more accountability for schools and teachers, more emphasis on standardized testing and more school choices for all students have been pushing the changes into place as fast — or as it turns out maybe faster — than they can be appropriately implemented.

That certainly appears to be the case with the current A-F grading system that then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett pushed into place last year.

According to the report from William Sheldrake and John Grew, a bipartisan pair of well-respected, former budget and policy officials, the Indiana Department of Education “underestimated administrative and technical challenges associated with developing the new administrative rule, computer programming and testing necessary to implement the new rule, and obtaining feedback” on the new system.

That’s not a surprise. Educators and administrators had been complaining prior to last year’s release of A-F grades that the system wouldn’t accurately reflect the work going on at their schools. At the time, that might have seemed like excuses meant to distract from poor performance. But it turns out, those school leaders probably had a point.

The report, which was requested by Republican legislative leaders, said Bennett’s administration “did not contemplate” all the various ways that schools were organized and therefore was left to make last-minute changes in the grading formulas, some just days before the ratings were released to the public.

That’s what got Bennett in this mess.

Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco this summer obtained emails that showed Bennett ordered his staff to find ways to raise the grade for Christel House Academy, a charter school he’d been touting and whose founder had contributed heavily to his campaign.

Under the original formula, the school was to receive a C, in part due to algebra scores that one Department of Education official called “awful.” Last-

minute changes implemented by Bennett’s staff raised the grade to an A, despite those algebra scores.

The ensuing controversy led to accusations that Bennett cheated the system, which led to his resignation as the education chief in Florida, a job he took after Democrat Glenda Ritz unseated him as state superintendent last fall.

In the report released last week, Sheldrake and Grew found that the A-F formula changes made by Bennett’s staff were applied fairly to all similarly situated schools. And they said the “adjustments administered to determine Christel House Academy’s final grade were plausible.” Some Republicans rushed to say the report exonerated Bennett.

But again, not so fast. The report also said that “a significant portion of the educational community did not understand or trust in the accuracy or fairness” of the A-F formulas. That’s a problem, and it goes back to the earlier premise that education changes are being implemented so quickly that they are not adequately tested first.

Grew and Sheldrake said that needs to change.

Already, lawmakers have ordered the Board of Education to make changes in the A-F system by putting more emphasis on the growth in student achievement, rather than in raw standardized test scores. And legislative leaders, along with Ritz and Republican Gov. Mike Pence, have appointed a committee to make recommendations for changes to the state board.

But Grew and Sheldrake urged state officials not to get into a big hurry.

“Because of the complexity involved in implementing any new accountability system, the system should be piloted prior to implementation, if possible, permitting IDOE to solicit and receive extensive feedback from schools, adequately perform programming tests, and evaluate policy components incorporated into the system,” the report said.

In other words: Not so fast.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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