State Impact Indiana: Grading Schools A-F

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August 8, 2013 –Former state superintendent Tony Bennett resigned his post as Florida Education Commissioner last week after it came out that his staff changed the letter grades of a more than a dozen charter schools here in Indiana. Now a pair of independent evaluators will assess whether the grades schools received in 2012 were accurate. But even before Bennett’s changes came to light, state lawmakers had already called for a rewrite of the state’s A through F grading system. StateImpact Indiana’s Elle Moxley explains the benefits — and pitfalls — of using letter grades to rate schools.


Late last week Governor Mike Pence joined a chorus of state officials encouraging an outside review of Indiana’s A through F accountability model. The governor says he supports using letter grades to rate schools and hopes the evaluators hired by the Department of Education can restore confidence in the system. Mike Petrilli is vice president of the Fordham Institute. He says A through F accountability systems are popular for one big reason — they’re easy to understand.

There is a clear trade off here. The A to F systems with one single letter grade, the benefit is they are easy to understand, they send a clear signal to parents and to the taxpayers. The downside is you lose a lot of nuance.



Petrilli says former state superintendent Tony Bennett’s explanation of how an Indianapolis charter school jumped to a C to an A makes sense. Bennett is standing by his decision to boost Christel House Academy’s score, saying he had always held up the school as one of the best in Indiana. If the school didn’t get an A, no one would buy into the system. Petrilli says that makes designing an accountability system that works a lot like baking cookies. Indiana got its recipe from Florida, where former Governor Jeb Bush popularized A through F accountability. But state education officials here had to make tweaks to get the dough to rise.

These systems may look scientific, but behind these letter grades are a lot of judgment calls — and, really, policy decisions about what we want to value in our education system.



Petrilli says this is where it gets messy. Just because Indiana and 14 other states now use A through F accountability systems doesn’t mean the grades are calculated using the same metrics. Each state has its own formula for assigning school letter grades. The focus here is on growth — a complicated calculation that compares Indiana students to their peers across the state. It’s so hard to explain that state lawmakers want to simplify the calculation with the upcoming A through F rewrite.


But what if designing an accountability system isn’t like baking cookies? What if it’s more like … buying a car? Where you might care most about one or two things, such as the gas mileage or safety record or leather seats? Jim Stergois is the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, another education policy think tank. He’s based in Massachusetts, a state known for its high-performing schools. Instead of issuing letter grades, Massachusetts releases all kinds of school-level data — test scores, class sizes, even student-to-computer ratios.


It’s like what happens in the car industry when Consumer Reporters or Popular Mechanics or these people say, this Ford model is absolutely excellent, this Honda is absolutely excellent, and they’ll explain to you how they rated it. I think that’s a far better way for people to get engaged.


Stergois says Bennett was right to resign his post in Florida. He says the cornerstone of any accountability system is transparency — and the Bennett emails released by the Associated Press show just a handful of people making high stakes decision about school ratings.


If as superintendent in Indiana, Tony Bennett had said, listen, we need to think about this and do it publicly, that upholds the public trust.


In total, 13 charter schools saw their letter grades improve as result of Bennett’s staff tinkering with the accountability metrics. Teresa Meredith is president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and a critic of the A through F system. She says Indiana needs to suspend letter grades until it’s clear how many schools were potentially harmed.


In the end, the charter who didn’t have such a good grade, got what it needed in terms of the formula to make it look better than it really should have. We’ve got to make sure in the new system, that can’t happen. That cannot happen.


For his part, Bennett is also calling for an independent review of Indiana’s 2012 A through F letter grades. He says the results will vindicate him.  For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Elle Moxley.


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