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By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – More Indiana public schools received As this year and fewer received Fs under grades the Indiana State Board of Education approved Friday after months of political wrangling over the system.
Among the Fs was a charter school that received a controversial A rating last year after former State Superintendent Tony Bennett ordered changes to the formula. School officials on Friday blamed ISTEP problems for the grade change.
Christel House Academy in Indianapolis is among 106 public schools in Indiana that received failing grades under the system, which has been roundly criticized by educators and lawmakers alike. That’s a drop from 136 public school Fs issued last year.
The grading formula is set to change next year – with more emphasis put on individual student growth rather than overall achievement – although policymakers haven’t finished working on the new criteria.
For now, though, the State Board of Education was stuck approving grades under the old formula, which also produced 805 As, 382 Bs, 332 Cs and 195 Ds among public schools.
Last year, only 671 public schools received As, according to the Department of Education.
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said Friday that many public schools had big changes in their grades – some better, some worse – and that’s a fault with the current A-F grading model. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
“Though this current model for calculating school accountability grades will be changing, the data does show that some great learning is occurring in our schools, and I want to congratulate our students for their successes,” sate Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said in a statement about the grades.
Only board member Andrea Neal voted against the grade placements. She said the formula applies a one-size-fits-all system that fails to encourage schools to offer a well-rounded education to all students.
“To get an A, schools know what they have to do,” which involves focusing on reading, math and standardized testing, Neal said. “In some cases, this is happening to the exclusion of all else,” including the arts.
The board also approved grade placements for private schools. When those grades are added, the total number of schools receiving As increases to 938. The total number of all schools with Bs is 451, the number with Cs is 372, with Ds is 209 and Fs is 112, according to the Department of Education.
Many schools saw their grades change – some for the better and others for worse. Wood Memorial Junior High in Gibson County moved from an F last year to a B this year, while just down the road, Princeton Middle School moved from a D to an A. Two Mississinewa schools also moved from Ds to As as did Knightstown Elementary in Henry County. There were dozens of other examples.
But the Indiana Math & Science Academy dropped from a B to an F and the Padua Academy dropped from an A to an F.
Ritz said such dramatic changes in grades expose one of the problems with the current A-F grading system. She said because the grades are based on a four-point scale, small changes in scores or graduation rates can make big differences in the final categories.
The new system – to be implemented with next year’s grades – is to be based on a 100-point scale, which Ritz said should better represent how a school is actually doing year to year.
“A good system will show that you have a school improving or you have a school not improving – but not extremes like you’re seeing in the current model,” Ritz said.
At Christel House – which had received As for years and which Bennett had lauded as an example of a successful charter school – the grade plummeted largely due to lower ISTEP scores, said Daniel Altman, a spokesman for the Department of Education.
The school blamed the poor scores on problems with the ISTEP test last spring. Server failures at the company that administers the online testing program led many students to be kicked out of the system in the middle of the exams.
Christel House officials said 270 of its 294 students were prevented from successfully completing the online test.
“We appealed our grade based on the tremendously disruptive ISTEP+ testing problems that occurred with the online test. We believe these disruptions fatally flawed the results,” said Christel House Academy Principal Carey Dahncke. “We believe this inaccurately represents the performance of our students and teachers.”
An independent study found that, overall, the ISTEP results were valid, although some individual scores were nullified. DOE officials said they received a number of appeals based on ISTEP tests but did not grant any of them.
Christel House is under special scrutiny because last year it was set to receive a C under the grading formula. But emails uncovered during the summer by the Associated Press showed that Bennett asked for changes in the grading formula that benefitted Christel House and more than a hundred other schools. The changes raised the Christel House grade to an A.
The revelations about Bennett’s actions led him to resign from his post as the education chief in Florida, where the Republican moved after he was defeated in his reelection bid by Ritz. Later, a bipartisan study found that the changes made by Bennett were “plausible.”
The Board of Education approved the grades Friday after brief discussions and questions, without any of the rancor that has marked recent meetings.
Board members – who have all been appointed by Republican governors – have been critical of Ritz and the Department of Education she oversees for failing to get information to schools and the final grades finished more quickly.
Ritz has blamed the ISTEP problems for some of the problems. But at the request of skeptical board members, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency ran the data through the grading formula as well to serve as a check against the DOE results.
DOE officials on Friday said the results were the same in most cases. Where problems cropped up, LSA and DOE officials were able to work out the differences.
Still, board member Dan Elsener said that next year, education officials should strive to finish the appeals process more quickly so that schools know before the board votes what the final grades will be.
Lesley Weidenbener is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.