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Fairness and accuracy questions persist with latest grade change for Christel House

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INDIANAPOLIS — One year after the Christel House Academy found itself at the center of the grade-change scandal that cost former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett his job running Florida's school system, the highly celebrated Indianapolis charter school is the center of attention again — this time for a grade change in public.

The State Board of Education voted 10-1 last week to give the school a special exception to the grading formula that will bump its grade from a "D'' to a "B." This time, all of the same arguments that happened behind closed doors were aired in a public meeting, from consternation that an inherently "good" school would have such a poor grade to questions of fairness.

The situation has renewed debate over who wins and losses in the creation of a high-stakes school grading system. The issue is as relevant as ever as the state prepares for another overhaul of the school grading formula, which will take effect for the next school year.

Leaders from other prominent charter schools, including Carpe Diem in Indianapolis and 21st Century Charter School of Gary, pointed out areas In which their schools excelled — specifically on high school English and algebra tests — and wondered why they received low grades anyway.

State education members, meanwhile, have spent months now deciding what is fair in assessing how students improve year to year — the so-called "growth model" at the core of the school grading formula.

Ironically it was poor algebra scores at Christel House and Bennett's guarantee that the school would receive an "A'' that led to the grade-change scandal.

Jon Gubera, working at the time as one of the chief architects of the school grading formula, put it bluntly in a Sept. 13, 2012, email to Bennett: "Bottom line: their terrible 10th grade Algebra I results (33% passing) was the principal factor in earning a C grade," Gubera wrote.

Gubera, who now works as a lobbyist for The College Board, ultimately decided with Bennett and a few others to lift a cap placed on bonus points and eventually drop Christel House's high school scores from consideration altogether.

Last week's debate of Christel House's grade focused on whether it was fair and accurate — the school's academic director, Carey Dahncke, said there were not enough students in his high school to allow for an accurate portrayal.

It mirrored a broader debate that has been raging for years over school grades.

A month-long legislative investigation uncovered the two major changes in Indiana's grading formula, as well as extensive problems caused by rushing a complex grading formula to completion. But it also left a few major questions unanswered.

The Bennett grading formula is on its way out the door, but questions of fairness and accuracy will remain at the heart of the debate over school grades.

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