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A-F panel begins work on new grading system

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Members of a new group studying the state’s A-F school grading system got to work Thursday with a history lesson of sorts that raised questions about the difficulty of marrying state and federal rules for education accountability.

Those recommendations will be reviewed by the State Board of Education, which will set the new rules for how the grades – which can lead to state rewards and sanctions – are determined.

The panel’s co-chairman, Steven Yager, said meeting the deadline will be “challenging” but he said he’s confident it’s achievable.

“We know we’ll have a lot of homework in between meetings and we’re up to that task,” Yager said.

The panel – a mix of 17 teachers and administrators appointed by state elected leaders – heard Monday about the history of the state’s accountability system, which predates federal efforts including No Child Left Behind.

Today, the state is operating it’s A-F grading system under a U.S. Department of Education waiver that allowed state officials to craft a state system that’s meant to meet the spirit of both state and federal systems.

The waiver will expire after the current school year and state officials must apply for a new one. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a co-chair of the advisory panel, said the goal will be to create another “unified model to meet both state and federal requirements.”

The current A-F system is required by state law but education officials determine the criteria used to determine the grades. The current system considers standardized test scores, achievement growth, graduation rates and college and career readiness measures.

But the system has been controversial since its implementation. Some schools have complained that it’s unfair and doesn’t do enough to measure improvement. Earlier this year, lawmakers ordered changes.

Then this summer, the system came under further fire when former state Superintendent Tony Bennett – who lost to Ritz in the last election – was accused of changing the current A-F grading system to benefit a charter school he had been touting. The change benefited other schools as well, raising questions among educators and lawmakers about whether the grades are fair.

An independent investigation deemed the changes “plausible” but said the Department of Education had been unprepared to implement such a complicated system.

On Thursday, education officials acknowledged some of those complications, such as creating a system that measures achievement at schools that have different grade configurations. Ritz said Indiana schools are set up in 90 different ways; some may have only K-2 grades while others serve only a subset of students.

That’s part of what led to Bennett’s troubles. The charter school he is accused of helping wasn’t a full high school and therefore didn’t fit the formula, which Bennett’s office then tweaked.

Ritz told the panel that even as the state implements a new system, the federal requirements for achievement will get tougher.

Jim Snapp, superintendent of Brownsburg Community Schools, asked whether federal officials would give the state some leeway if scores dipped during the transition. But Ritz said that’s unlikely.

“The bar gets raised every year,” she said. “We’re not exempt from having the bar raised.”

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