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State board raises Christel House's grade from D to B

October 15, 2014

For the second time in three years, Indianapolis’s Christel House Academy South charter school received a higher grade than the state’s scoring formula initially said it should.

Two years ago, the school was embroiled in scandal when critics accused former state Superintendent Tony Bennett changing the grading process to benefit Christel House. This time, it was the State Board of Education that made the change, in a public meeting that focused on shortcomings of their school grading formula.

Siding with officials from Christel House who argued that the formula unfairly penalizes schools with unusual grade configurations, the board voted to give the school a B instead of the D that State Superintendent Glenda Ritz recommended. Only Ritz voted no. The new grade will be official when the board votes to approve all the school grades on Nov. 5. The board delayed release of A to F grades today to allow for corrections to grades for about five schools.

I think above all else we want the the system to have integrity,” state board member Sarah O’Brien said. “When we release all these grades across the state, I want them to mean something … and have the letter grade match what we are seeing in that building.”

But advocates for traditional public schools said the school was getting special treatment.

“They’re changing the rules as they go to play favorites,” Indiana Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said. “That’s not right.”

But Christel House CEO Carey Dahncke argued the school’s circumstances were unique, making a D unfair. Changing the grade was the right thing to do because the school simply did not fit the mold expected by the model that calculated it deserved a D, he said.

“The incomplete model has a very high likelihood of penalizing schools,” he said.

Christel House South, renamed after its sister school Christel House West opened earlier this year, had a run of seven consecutive A grades until the school’s 2012 grade was at the center of a debate over whether Bennett manipulated the A to F formula.

Emails from the fall of 2012 showed Bennett and his staff fretted that Christel House South might not receive an A. Research by Bennett’s team led to a proposal to tweak the grading formula in a way that raised grades for Christel House South, serving students in grades K to 10, and 11 other schools with unusual grade configurations. That brought charges from Bennett’s critics that the A was undeserved.

An outside review of Bennett’s formula changes from a pair of consultants hired by Republican legislative leaders later ruled called them “plausible” but declined to explore the motivations of Bennett and his lieutenants. Bennett eventually paid a fine for campaign violations but faced no penalty for the grade change.

Last year, Christel House South’s grade plummeted to an F and critics said it was proof the 2012 grade was inflated. But school officials said they had evidence that glitches in the state’s online testing system adversely affected its students’ scores.

This year, its the school’s passing rate rebounded. It recovered nearly all of its lost ground from 2013 by gaining 9 points to 71 percent passing. Its passing rate had been more than 70 percent the prior three years.

But that wasn’t enough to raise the school above a D. The reason: high school test performance and, the school argued, the state’s method for combining grades K to 12 into one letter grade.

While Christel House South has done well on ISTEP in grades 3 to 8, it has struggled to get 10th graders to pass end-of-course exams, especially the state algebra test. This year, 37.8 percent passed, well below the state’s 72.8 percent average but the school’s highest rate in three years.

When those scores were calculated in, it dragged down the grade for Christel House. The school expanded last year to 12th grade, with its first graduates last May. But it takes the state a year to calculate graduation rates, so that figure won’t be included in its grade until next year.

Dancke, however, argued there is other evidence the school’s graduating class did well: 85 percent of the class earned college credit in high school, 45 percent received honors diplomas and 100 percent were accepted into four year colleges.

But none of that counts this year, he said. Just the test scores.

“It just doesn’t paint an accurate picture,” Dancke said.

State board members agreed.

“The rule did not envision evolving schools or startups,” board member Brad Oliver said. “And for that reason it is atypical. The grade should communicate something that’s more reflective of what’s going on.”

The calculation method for schools with odd configurations — such as a blend of elementary, middle and high school grades — has been in place for two years. But this summer, the state board created a special appeal process for Christel House and six other schools like it. The state board heard appeals from three charter schools. One other school, Indiana Math and Science Academy North, was changed from a C to a B because of a data error, not for the same reasons as Christel House South.

The new rule allows the state board to make case-by-case decisions for those schools’ grades. It can even choose a different grade calculation method.

For Christel House, board members decided to leave high school measures out of its grade calculation altogether.

Clarification: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the state board’s reasons for changing Christel House Academy South’s grade.

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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