Former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was some kind of magician. He made dozens of Indianapolis high-school students disappear in order to award an A grade to a charter school founded by a GOP mega-donor.
Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press revealed Monday that Bennett and his Department of Education staff manipulated Indiana’s school grading system to produce an A for Christel House Academy, run by Indianapolis philanthropist Christel DeHaan.
The AP story, relying on email messages obtained under the state’s public-records law, shows Bennett and his top assistants scrambling frantically after they realized highly regarded Christel House was going to get a C under the newly revised grading system.
“I cannot count the number of times we have been in meetings with Christel, The Chamber (of Commerce), Brian Bosma, David Long, and others when I have said that we count Christel House as an A school,” Bennett vented to his assistants in an email on Sept. 13, 2012.
Bosma is speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. Long is president pro tem of the Indiana Senate. Why do they care what grade a charter school gets? As LoBianco writes, DeHaan “has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.”
Christel House was known as an effective school serving elementary and middle-school students from high-poverty backgrounds. It expanded to ninth grade in 2010 and added 10th-graders in 2011. And in the spring of 2012, its high-school students bombed the state’s end-of-course assessment in algebra.
“Bottom line: Their terrible 10th grade Algebra I results (33 percent passing) was the principal factor in earning a C,” DOE chief assessment officer Jon Gubera wrote in one of the emails.
But a C clearly wasn’t acceptable. So the department found a fix.
Indiana uses two systems to calculate school grades, one for elementary and middle schools and another for high schools. State guidance for “combined schools,” which include both elementary-middle and high-school students, calls for calculating two separate scores and pro-rating them by enrollment to arrive at a school grade.
But Will Krebs, Bennett’s director of policy and research, suggested a different way. He said the state could insist any high-school grade be based on all four factors that go into high-school evaluations: English/language arts test scores, algebra scores, graduation rates and “college and career readiness” (a count of students who take advanced classes or earn college credit).
“This is a loophole,” Krebs wrote in a note to his proposal. Because Christel House had only ninth and 10th graders, it couldn’t be evaluated for graduation rate or college and career readiness. So it wouldn’t get a high-school grade. So its grade wouldn’t reflect the poor algebra results. Test scores from the school’s high-school-age students wouldn’t count against it. For accountability purposes, they would be invisible.
That was enough to raise the grade to a B. How the state got it all the way to an A isn’t immediately clear. Maybe we’ll get a better idea if AP posts more of the emails.
Christel House was one of 13 Indiana schools affected by the new approach, according to the emails. All of them were charter schools.
Bennett told the AP he didn’t do any favors for DeHaan and his only concern was to make sure the system was fair for combined schools. But the emails belie that claim. They show Bennett worried about results for Christel House and Christel House alone.
I heard in early 2012 that DeHaan was upset about the grading system, and I imagined she could make herself heard. But I never guessed Bennett and his staff would be so cynical as to manipulate the grades to bump Christel House all the way from a C to an A.
As LoBianco writes, Indiana’s school grades help determine which schools get taken over by the state and which students get vouchers to leave for private schools, and they also influence state funding. In Georgia, former school officials are facing criminal charges for changing student’s answers on standardized tests. This doesn’t seem a lot different.