Ind. officials find school grading ‘manipulation’

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s top education official on Wednesday acknowledged “manipulation” in the way the state’s schools are graded, the latest fallout from an Associated Press report that found her predecessor worked behind the scenes to improve the score of a charter school founded by an influential Republican donor.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz told state school board members that this year’s school ratings would be held up, at least temporarily, as a result of the independent review into the A-F grading system and left open the possibility some of last year’s grades could be changed.

The system was established by Tony Bennett, a rising star in the education reform movement, who last week resigned from his new job as Florida’s schools chief amid the scandal in Indiana.

“Upon our preliminary examination, the department has verified that there was manipulation of calculation categories and the department has also determined that there are broader issues that need to be examined,” Ritz said.

Ritz, a Democrat, brought up the scandal at Wednesday’s school board meeting, but Bennett’s allies on the Republican-dominated board had little to say. She met privately Wednesday afternoon with Indiana’s Republican legislative leaders, who have started their own investigation.

Ritz declined to discuss specifics of the review but said a final report could be ready by Sept. 2.

The AP published emails showing a frantic effort by Bennett and top staff to rewrite the state’s school grading formula after the Indianapolis-based Christel House Academy, founded by GOP donor Christel DeHaan, scored a C. The school’s grade was changed twice in the following days, eventually ending at an A. Several other schools also saw their grades improve as a result.

Indiana’s school report card website still shows the school with an A.

Bennett has maintained he gave no special treatment to DeHaan’s school, whose founder has given $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998 — including $130,000 to Bennett. He called the report “malicious and unfounded.”

But the emails obtained by The Associated Press show that over the course of a little more than a week last September, Bennett ordered his staff to find a way to get an A for Christel House, which he’d held up as a model for other charter schools.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012, email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.

In the following days, the school’s grade jumped from 2.9 to a 3.5, and, finally, a 3.75 on a 4-point scale. Along the way, Bennett and his staff debated the legality of changing the grade for the school only and changing the public presentation of graphs to make a high B look like an A.

At one point, Bennett suggested revising the cutoff for an A from a 3.51 to a 3.50. By Sept. 21, when grades were released for all the state’s schools, Christel House had a 3.75.

Leaders in the national education overhaul movement, who helped build Bennett into a star following Indiana’s passage of sweeping education changes in 2011, flocked to his support in the wake of the scandal. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush penned an op-ed for the Miami Herald in which he blamed political opponents for Bennett’s demise.

The scandal has put a new focus on school grading systems, pushed by Bush and other leaders as a means of holding schools accountable. The grades are used in part to determine school funding and teacher pay and to determine whether “failing” schools are turned over to charters for operation.

Critics, including the American Federation of Teachers, have said the scandal is proof that “accountability” systems are scams designed to move control of public schools to charter school operators bankrolling the national movement.

In his resignation speech, Bennett called on Indiana’s Republican-appointed inspector general to review the case.

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