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State Impact Indiana Analysis: School Grades

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August 15, 2013 — The controversy swirling around Indiana’s school rating system and ex-schools chief Tony Bennett has largely centered on one Indianapolis charter school.  But the changes Bennett’s staff made to the letter grading formula didn’t only lift Christel House Academy’s grade.  An analysis from StateImpact Indiana shows the change lifted the grades of more than 160 other Indiana schools.  StateImpact’s Kyle Stokes explains how — with the help of the Bloomington blogger who first put the pieces together:

How did Tony Bennett’s staff bump up Christel House’s grade from a C to an A?  The emails the Associated Press published two weeks ago only half-answered that question.  The messages show Bennett’s staff was able to disregard some of Christel House’s worst scores by exploiting a “loophole” in state rules.

Hinnefeld: “But that only got Christel House to a B, so I think I wrote in my initial post — looking at that — it’s not immediately clear how they got from a B to an A.”

That’s Steve Hinnefeld, a former education reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Times who now writes a blog called School Matters.  After he wrote that first post— he got a tip from a reader, who ran the numbers and left a comment:

Hinnefeld: “Here’s how they did it — it looks like they lifted this ceiling.”

(sigh) The ceiling.  This is complicated, but if you want to understand how this change impacted school grades statewide — you have to understand the ceiling.  An elementary or middle school’s letter grade is actually an average of two grades:  up to four points for a school’s English scores, and up to four points for math.  Think of it like your GPA, except for a school.

Hinnefeld: “You would get 4 points for an A, 3 points for a B, and so on.”

Now here’s where the ceiling comes in.

Hinnefeld: “In addition, you could get points for student growth”

You could get them in both English and Math.  But at least initially, state officials didn’t want schools getting more than 4 points in either subject.  And the reason, says Steve Hinnefeld:

Hinnefeld: “We don’t really want to give an A to a school that was doing great in math but really poorly in English.”

So the ceiling made it so a school with 1 point in English — the same as an D — couldn’t get 5 or 6 points in Math and still get a good overall grade.  In fact, an email from the AP’s report — dated September 13, 2012 — shows a state education official factoring the ceiling into Christel House Academy’s grade.  But just five days later, someone posted new directions for calculating grades on the DOE’s website — new directions that made no mention of the ceiling. Bennett’s staff doesn’t explicitly mention the ceiling in the emails released by the AP — and it absolutely is not clear they made this change exclusively for Christel House.  But when state officials ran the grades again — Hinnefeld says the result was clear:

Hinnefeld: “Not only Christel House’s grade, but all grades were apparently re-calculated without the ceiling, allowing schools to get more than four points in math — or more than four points in English.”

Lifting the ceiling was like saying the highest grade you can get for Math or English isn’t an A — it’s an A-plus.  Or an A-plus-plus.  For 165 schools, that helped cancel out a bad score in another subject.  Those 165 schools got higher overall letter grades than they would have if state officials had left the ceiling in place.  Preliminary runs of the grading system gave most of these schools B’s at first.  But with the ceiling gone, they received A’s last year — and blogger Steve Hinnefeld says, good for them:

Hinnefeld: “ I think that’s pretty cool these schools got it — and I think, from everything I know, yeah, they probably deserve those grades.”

Bennett didn’t return calls about this story, but here’s what he told StateImpact earlier this month:

Bennett: “The whole process was a public-iterated process.  We believe we had the concept right but frankly there were some nuances to the system that we had to address.”

But does this story bolster the case against Bennett, showing he manipulated the grading system to benefit a favorite charter school?  Or does it bolster his defense, showing Bennett’s team made sincere effort to fix problems in the system — an effort that extended beyond Christel House?  Those are tough questions to answer.  Bennett says it’s unfair to say his staff’s process was secretive.  He says the process was transparent throughout.  But a lack of transparency exactly the charge Bennett faces from even supporters of A-through-F grading.  For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Kyle Stokes.

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