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Bill to change school-grades system moves forward

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Indiana's A-F grading system for individual schools would be scrapped and implementation suspended on a national set of reading and math education standards under a bill the state Senate approved Wednesday.

Another proposal to no longer require local school superintendents to hold a state superintendent's or teacher's license also cleared the Senate after Republican Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann cast her first tie-breaking vote as the Senate president.

The 37-13 vote in the Republican-controlled Senate endorsed ending the current system under which the state Department of Education issues a single A-F grade for each school. The Senate bill would have the agency issue two grades for each school: one based on the average academic performance of students, and the other based on how much students have improved.

"Most people think the current system is very complicated, very, very difficult to understand and know how you get these scores," Senate education committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said. "This is an effort to make that simple and easy to understand. I think it does that."

The A-F scale was implemented in 2011 and backed by Republican state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett — whom Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated in the November election — despite widespread opposition from teachers and other groups, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Many educators have complained that the system resulted in some schools with consistently high student test scores receiving low grades because students hadn't shown enough improvement.

The bill approved by the Senate would also suspend implementation of Common Core State Standards until after the state Board of Education receives a report on those standards from a legislative study committee.

House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he opposes any delays in schools adopting the benchmarks on what students should learn during each grade — benchmarks that have been adopted by 45 states.

Supporters of the new review say they don't believe the standards, developed by a group of state school officials from across the country, had enough public review in Indiana. They argue that the national initiative has led to a loss of local involvement over school standards.

Ritz, the new state schools superintendent, said Wednesday she also didn't want to delay implementation of the standards, but she also supports additional reviews on whether the changes should be made.

The Senate-approved bill seems to split the difference between Ritz and Behning on the A-F school grading scale.

Behning said a dual-grade system would be leave parents and others confused about what they mean, while Ritz wants to get rid of the letter grades completely in favor of putting out numerical data on student achievement and improvement.

"Reporting direct informational data tells way more about the story in their schools," Ritz said.

The tie-breaking vote cast by the lieutenant governor endorsed a bill changing the state's current requirement that school district superintendents have a teaching license and complete graduate school work in education administration.

Supporters say the change would give local school boards more flexibility to hire a business executive or someone else they believe best fills their needs for a top administrator. Opponents worry that the state would open the door to possible cronyism and lowering standards by allowing superintendents without any classroom experience.

The Senate added a requirement that a district superintendent must have a master's degree, which wasn't in the previous House-approved version of the bill.

Ellspermann's vote after senators split 25-25 was the first tie-breaking vote cast by a lieutenant governor in the chamber since 2005, according to a Senate spokeswoman.

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