State education department opts for secrecy

The Indiana Department of Education still refuses to disclose data used to determine A-F grades for schools in 2014-15, despite receiving a letter from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt that says the data should be made public.

I’ve requested the information twice, arguing it should be disclosed under the Access to Public Records Act. And the department has rejected my request twice, insisting the data falls under an exception for records that are speculative or expressions of opinion and are used for decision-making.

But I’m not asking for anything deliberative. I’m asking for numbers – the scores on a 4-point scale that were used to establish what grades schools would receive.

Remember that Indiana switched to new learning standards and a tougher ISTEP exam in 2014-15. Passing rates dropped dramatically. As a result, the General Assembly passed “hold harmless” legislation that said no school would get a lower grade than it received the previous year.

When the Department released grades in January, it didn’t indicate which schools were being held harmless and which actually earned the grades they received in 2014-15. And unlike in previous years, it didn’t include the scores on a 4-point scale that schools earned.

After the department turned down my first request for the data, I filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor, the state agency tasked with advising government officials on the public records and public meetings laws. Britt initially sided with the department in an advisory opinion to my complaint, labeled 16-FC-34.

But on the advice of Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, I provided the counselor with additional information clarifying that I was seeking data, not deliberative material. In a June 2 follow-up letter, copied to the Department of Education, Britt said the data should be released:

Release of data and rankings by itself should not affect the decision making process. The deliberative materials exemption is broad, but not so broad that it encompasses raw data. Any kind of data or ranking, lacking context, exists in a vacuum and should not impair the decision making process. You do not seek any accompanying summation or narration along with the grades, just the rankings themselves. As a caveat to Formal Complaint 16-FC-34, it is my opinion that the A-F accountability grades alone are not information intended by the legislature (or subsequent judicial holdings) to be considered deliberative.

Citing Britt’s letter, I again requested the data. The department’s response, from DOE attorney Kelly M. Bauder, again insisted that the data were “deliberative” material – which is defined in the public records law as records that are “expressions or opinion or are of a speculative nature.”

Bauder also argued that, if the grades that schools actually earned in 2014-15 were made public, schools wouldn’t be “held harmless” as the legislature intended. But the grades that schools received under the law are the grades they received, and nothing can take that away from them. If lawmakers wanted to save schools from having people know what grades they actually earned, they could have written that provision into the legislation. They didn’t.

Britt said the data should be made public, but his opinions don’t have the force of law. They merely provide guidance that agencies should follow. Only a judge, responding to a lawsuit, could order the records to be disclosed. So that’s where things stand.

It’s important to note, however, that the law says deliberative material may be kept secret at the discretion of the public agency. So even if Bauder were correct that the numbers I requested amount to opinions or speculation, the department could release them. It’s simply choosing not to.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who heads the Department of Education, has presented herself as an advocate of transparent government. She sued the State Board of Education when its members conducted business outside of public meetings. Her staff readily disclosed email records that got her predecessor as superintendent, Tony Bennett, in a whole world of trouble.

But in this case, the department’s actions fly in the face of the public records law, which declares that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government.”

And that is very, very disappointing.

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8 thoughts on “State education department opts for secrecy

  1. It seems that both appointed and elected official in government never learn that openness can lead to support for decisions, or at least some understanding of how the decision was reached and can be defended – thus eliminating suspicion of under the table deals. What is there to hide?

  2. I have mixed feelings about this. I am curious about the initial grades with the low scores on the new test. I do think that attorney Bauder is correct in the sense that schools will be judged in public, by the public, once those preliminary grades are available. Once newspapers are writing about those grades, they will known, discussed, and used to judge. This is the problem with having a measure that is invalid and not a measure of what it is used to judge…the quality of a school. These grades are a tremendous disservice to the professionals who devote so much care, imagination, and hard work to children who come to them with such a range of challenges. I talked with a teacher the other day who was saying that accreditation used to be the way schools (not scores) were assessed. Accreditation sounds like a sound approach to me. Why has it been abandoned? Too much control in the hands of educators? Not enough money to be made?

    • I would make three points: 1) Public records belong to the public and, on principle, should always be disclosed unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them secret. 2) Indiana officials created the accountability system that was in place for 2014-15 and people should be able to see and evaluate what they did. 3) If we wanted to avoid having people unfairly judge schools, we should have canceled grades for 2014-15. Schools that got Fs were still labeled and judged; they were not “held harmless” from public scrutiny or from potential sanctions.

      Regarding acreditation, Indiana in the 1990s had what was called performance-based accreditation, with schools being evaluated by the state on a 5-year cycle. Schools would qualify for 5-year accreditation; or if the state found problems, they might be accredited for 2 years. Very rarely they might be put on probation. I think it did create some incentives for schools to improve, including to improve test scores but also to implement “effective schools” practices. Critics complained that the incentives weren’t that tough, and no schools was every shut down for poor performance. I think what happened to that system was No Child Left Behind.

      Search the old H-T archives for “performance-based accreditation,” and you’ll find a bunch of stories that give a picture of how it worked. Or even better, maybe Harmon Baldwin will read this thread and explain it.

  3. I’m not joking when I say that they probably don’t want anyone to find errors in their work. No disrespect to the data folks over at the IDOE, but I get the sense they’re overwhelmed and under-equipped. So, they’ll take any “out” they can. I don’t know, I can think of other less-than-noble reasons they’d hide the scores. Maybe some favorite school districts didn’t do well. It’s an election year – maybe they’re afraid the results would reflect poorly on Ritz. I’m blindly hurling accusations here, I know, but in my experience they may not be too far removed from reality. It doesn’t apply to Ritz only – all politicians face similar incentives.

    I guess another way to look at it, though, is what will the scores tell us? What questions are you looking to answer, Steve? (Maybe you’ve mentioned in a past post – I haven’t been keeping up.)

    In the end, are you willing to bring a lawsuit against them? In an election year? That’d be terribly exciting……. 😛

    • Thanks, Caty. Good points. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that being “overwhelmed and under-equipped” — and maybe under-resourced — often explains a lot. I just think they’re wrong on the legal argument. Hard to know what questions to pursue without seeing the data. But the basic principle is that public records should be available to the public.

  4. Pingback: Why public records should be made public | School Matters

  5. Pingback: No comparing school grades to previous years | School Matters

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