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Education board won't change schools' grades

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Indiana's State Board of Education declined Wednesday to change the grades for a handful of schools following a review of changes the former public schools superintendent made last year to the grading formula.

The board decided that three high schools should keep the A's they received, while four other schools should keep their F's. Indiana's current schools superintendent, Democrat Glenda Ritz, abstained from Wednesday's votes.

"These school are being penalized because we did not create a model that fits their school," Tony Walker, a Gary lawyer and Democratic member of the school board, said of the three high schools that had their grades lifted from B's to A's because of one change made by former Superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican.

"That's no fault of theirs, that's a lack of foresight that we didn't know these schools existed out there that we didn't have a model for them," he said. "These schools should at least be given the benefit of the doubt because we did not account for their configuration."

Bennett made a pair of sweeping changes in the formula that carried the Christel House charter school from a C to an A. He removed a limit on bonus points and changed how so-called "combined" schools were scored. Each change affected multiple schools, but Christel House was the only school to benefit from both.

Three high schools saw their grades lifted slightly, but four saw their grades drop from D's to F's after Bennett decided to drop high school grades for certain "combined" schools in Indiana's scoring model. Christel House's high school had poor algebra scores and no graduation numbers because it did not include grades 11 and 12. But in the case of the other four schools, their high school performance was lifting up their grades.

Bennett resigned as Florida's schools chief in August, a few days after The Associated Press published emails uncovering his changes to the formula. Bennett has maintained he did nothing wrong.

Inspector General David Thomas has confirmed that Bennett is the subject of an ongoing investigation but has declined to say specifically what is being reviewed.

Indiana has classified schools based on graduation rates and testing performance since "Public Law 221" was approved in 1999. But Bennett sought more accountability for schools and successfully pushed for a new A-F system.

The grades are used to determine how much money schools get and whether "failing" schools are taken over by private operators. The grades have also become an important tool for realtors and homebuyers.

Indiana's school board had already been tasked by state lawmakers earlier this year with creating a new formula by Nov. 15. That work continues.

The pair of analysts picked by Indiana's Republican legislative leaders to review Bennett's changes took questions from the board earlier Wednesday. John Grew, a former Democratic Statehouse analyst, and Bill Sheldrake, a veteran Republican analyst, walked through their findings in the 58-page report.

The pair found that Bennett and his team rushed to release the school grades last year without properly testing the formula. They also discovered credibility problems with the scoring because Bennett and his team were not telling the public about changes they made.

Sheldrake ended with some final advice for the board as it works on the new grading formula: "Transparency. Transparency. Transparency."

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