School grade panel suggests new focus on 'growth'

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The bipartisan panel tasked with overhauling the school grading formula at the center of Indiana's grade-changing scandal submitted recommendations Thursday with a new focus on how individual students perform on state tests.

If adopted by the State Board of Education, the new formula would grade schools on a 100-point scale based in part on how their students perform on standardized tests year-to-year. It would also expand testing to first and second grades while potentially lowering the number of overall tests students take throughout their schooling.

Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Steven Yager, who was appointed by Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, praised the work of the group they co-chaired through seven intensive meetings over the past six weeks.

"Because of this group's work, for the first time, we have moved a major step closer to a system that measures our schools based on individual student learning," Ritz said in a statement Thursday.

The new formula, according to the report, should calculate school grades differently for grades one to eight and grades nine to 12, balance raw performance on tests against student improvement, and judge students based on expectations on how much they should improve annually or "targeted growth."

The school grades play a crucial role in determining teacher pay, school funding and whether "failing" schools are turned over to private operators by the state. The existing grading formula became the center of controversy after The Associated Press reported former Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett had altered it last year to benefit a donor's Indianapolis charter school.

State lawmakers had already approved a rewrite of the formula earlier this year, amid widespread criticism about the Bennett scandal. Elected officials picked a 17-member group to create a transparent and easier to understand grading system.

The "A-F" panel's 38-page report now heads to the state board, which must sign off on a new grading formula by Nov. 15. Tensions have been running high on the board after Ritz, the chairwoman, sued the other 10 members for seeking to move the grade calculations from her agency.

The panel also recommended the state spend a year testing any new formula before applying it after the 2014-15 school year. The pair of legislative investigators tasked with uncovering the changes Bennett made to the formula said the former superintendent and his team rushed the grades out too fast last year and lacked the technical skills needed to properly vet the new system.

The pair of investigators also recommended more transparency in the crafting of the new formula.

The report comes as Ritz is telling local school superintendents that school grades for the 2012-13 school year will be delivered Nov. 22. The 10 other state board members targeted by Ritz in the lawsuit, all appointees made by Republican governors, accused Ritz of dragging her feet on the grades in a letter two weeks ago.

That letter, which asked the General Assembly's bill-drafting agency to calculate the school grades instead of Ritz, sparked the lawsuit, which is scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday in Marion County civil court.


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