By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Two data experts, one Republican and the other Democrat, will lead an independent review of Indiana’s new controversial A to F school grading system following allegations that former state schools superintendent Tony Bennett manipulated the grades to favor some schools over others.
The review by a task force appointed by legislative leaders will focus not just on the allegations against Bennett, but on the validity of the complicated assessment tool used by the state Department of Education to grade every school in Indiana.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who along with Republican Senate President David Long called for the independent review, said the allegations against Bennett only heightened their long-standing concerns that the A to F metric put into place last year was fundamentally flawed.
“I’m committed to having an accountable tool for schools,” Bosma said Friday. “It’s a fundamental management principle: if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. But having said that, the measuring tool must be fair, it must be accurate, and it must be uniformly applied in a transparent fashion.”
Bosma said the current A-F metric doesn’t fit those criteria, which is why the legislature passed a law earlier this year mandating it be changed. That law gives the State Board of Education, which approved the current A-F metric, until November to come up with another new formula to grade schools.
The independent task force conducting the A-F review will be led by Democrat John Grew, executive director of state relations and policy analysis at Indiana University, and Republican Bill Sheldrake, president and founder of Indianapolis-based research firm Policy Analytics.
“They’re both extremely intelligent and well-respected data analysts,” Bosma said.
Democrat Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson echoed Bosma, saying Grew and Sheldrake are both reputable analysts who can handle the work.
But Lanane expressed concerns about the tight deadline they’ll be working under: Grew and Sheldrake have until Labor Day to evaluate the A-F grading system, determine its validity, ascertain the fairness of previous grades given to schools and figure out if the system was manipulated by Bennett to favor some schools over others.
“Maybe we need to slow down,” Lanane said. “At this point, putting a moratorium [on the A-F grades] sounds like an excellent idea.”
The task force was prompted by reports from The Associated Press earlier this week that the Republican Bennett pushed his staff at the state Department of Education to raise grades for some charter schools, including one founded by a Republican campaign donor. Bennett has denied wrongdoing, but resigned earlier this week from his appointed post as Florida’s education commissioner.
Meanwhile, Indiana’s public schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who beat Bennett in his bid for re-election in November, has decided to do her own review of the A to F grading system, of which she’s been critical. She’s to report her findings to the State Board of Education on Aug. 7.
For the independent task force led by Grew and Sheldrake, the task of figuring out whether the A to F grading system itself is a good tool for measuring schools may not be their most difficult job.
While Bennett put the new formula for grading schools into place last year and defended it with vigor, it’s been widely criticized by education reformers and opponents alike. The teachers’ unions objected to the new formula, but so did the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has been a supporter of the concept of grading schools.
Their primary objection: The new formula used to grade schools relies too heavily on raw standardized test scores and not enough on the academic progress of individual students. They feared, for example, that a school that helped low-performing students make significant progress would still get a low grade if the schools’ overall test scores weren’t high.
The grades have impact: Chronically failing schools can be taken over by the state and highly graded schools can get more funding.
Bosma said he had concerns about the A-F formula as early as March 2012, as schools throughout Indiana were learning about the details of how the new formula would work. He said he met with “a whole parade of interested parties” who vehemently voiced their concerns.
“We came very close to putting a moratorium on it then,” Bosma said.
He relented, though, when Bennett agreed to work on revising the formula through the summer of 2012. That delayed the release of the test scores until early last November.
When those scores were finally released, critics once again voiced their concerns, only more vehemently. Legislators who saw schools in their districts experience dramatic drops in their grades under the new formula were most concerned and pushed for the law that mandates the State Board of Education come up with a new formula by November.
One unstated goal of the independent review by Grew and Sheldrake: To move the conversation on the A-F grading system away from the partisan politics in which it’s currently mired and back into the public policy realm.
“The primary purpose must, for all, be improving education for Hoosier students,” Bosma said. “It can’t be about politics. It can’t be about the impact on adults. It must be about improving education for Hoosier students.”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com