John Grew and William Sheldrake provide the most complete account to date on how the Indiana Department of Education struggled to implement A-to-F school grading last year. They also offer solid recommendations as the state moves to a new system in 2014.
But their report doesn’t put to rest one question: When and why did former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff remove a “ceiling” on the grade points that schools could earn for math or English test-score improvement, a move that ended up raising grades for 165 schools? Did they make the change to boost the grade for Christel House Academy, a favored Indianapolis charter school? Or was it a broad policy decision that officials just forgot to make public.
The Grew-Sheldrake report says former DOE officials claim the decision was made before the State Board of Education adopted the A-to-F rule in February 2012.
“According to DOE management staff, the removal of the growth caps was indicated by the language of the final approved rule, but erroneously not implemented in the computer programming of the model,” the report says. “This mistake was found in the final weeks prior to the embargoed release of the grades’ data to the schools on September 19, 2012.”
It appears to be true that the ceiling was not included in the language of the rule. But here are three reasons to suspect the decision may not have happened the way DOE management staff say.
First, an FAQ page explaining the point ceiling remains on the Internet (See items No. 11 and 29). According to the page’s document information, it was created in March 2012, a month after the SBE approved the rule. It was eventually replaced on the DOE website by an FAQ that deleted references to the ceiling. The later FAQ was created Sept. 18, 2012, just as the Christel House grade became an issue.
Second, read the email in which DOE director of assessment Jon Gubera explains that Christel House earned a C. He caps the school’s elementary math score at 4 points, a cap that was later removed as officials boosted the school first to a B, and then to an A. The email was sent Sept. 13, 2012. Gubera knew as much about the grading system as anyone, and it seems unlikely he made a mistake.
Finally, watch the video of the February 2012 SBE meeting, when the board approved the A-to-F rule. In 40 minutes of discussion, there’s no suggestion that the point ceiling would be lifted. At the 73-minute mark, right before the board votes, listen to member Mike Pettibone question the system’s fairness. Along with requiring schools to get 3.5 points on a 4-point scale to earn an A, he says, “we’re already putting a cap on the points they can get” for improvement.
No one – not Bennett or staff or board member – says, “No, we’re not doing that anymore.”
Plausible but not transparent
The Grew-Sheldrake report, which was requested by state legislative leaders, concludes the grading changes that Bennett and his staff made were “plausible” and were applied to all the affected schools. But that doesn’t mean, as Bennett and his supporters claim, that it exonerates him.
“Grew and Sheldrake said Friday that the report does not ‘exonerate’ or ‘vindicate’ Bennett, nor condemn him. They said it only explains how his team changed the grading formula,” reported Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press, who broke the grade-change story this summer.
No one said the two changes that boosted Christel House’s grade from a C to an A – doing away with the improvement point ceiling and disregarding mediocre test scores for the Christel House’s high-school students – weren’t plausible or defensible as policy decisions. The problem was that they weren’t transparent. As far as we can tell, Bennett never explained what he was doing or why.
The Grew-Sheldrake report got a lot of attention for its account of what happened in 2012, but its recommendations for creating a new grading system are arguably more important. They include:
// Involve experts and practitioners from the education community, make the system simpler and more easily understood and “provide for transparency in all decision-making.”
// Rely less on how many students pass state tests and more on student improvement with regard to state standards. (The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is on board with this idea, but it may not be popular with affluent schools that have earned As because most of their students pass the tests).
// Add more criteria for grading elementary and middle schools, which currently are judged solely on passing rates and student growth on math and English tests.
// Pilot-test the system to make sure it works before implementing it with consequences for schools.
The report also suggests suspending state intervention in low-scoring schools until the new grading system is operating properly – the point being that, given all that’s happened, the current grading system just doesn’t have the public’s trust.