UPDATE: Education panel delays grades for public schools

The Indiana Board of Education voted Wednesday to delay approving letter grades for schools because members said they were unsure about the underlying data.

The decision came after two school administrators complained about the appeals process for their grades and board members learned that the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency has not finished running the numbers, a process meant to verify the Department of Education results.

“I see somehow a lack of leadership, a lack of detail, that places us” in a bad situation, said board member David Freitas, who was addressing state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her staff at the Department of Education.

“You have not provided us some of the key ingredients to make an intelligent decision,” Freitas said. “We need to ensure the data is accurate.”

Ritz, who chairs the education board, said later she had also sought to delay approving the grades until the legislative agency had finished its work. But she said the board’s staff – which is an agency that is independent from the Department of Education – asked her to put it on the agenda.

The board plans to reconsider grades at a meeting Nov. 5 when Ritz said the data issues should be resolved and the LSA review would be completed.

Meanwhile, the board launched a rules-making process to create a new A-F system, one that will put more emphasis on individual student growth. However, the board decided Wednesday that overall achievement – meaning do students pass standardized tests and other measures of proficiency – will count slightly more than how much individual students improved.

The school grades that will be approved next month will be based on the current system, which Ritz acknowledged doesn’t always fairly represent the work a district is doing. Still, she urged board members to follow the existing rules as they considered appeals and questions from districts who disagreed with their proposed grades.

The board voted, for example, to change the way that the grade for the Christel House Academy will be calculated this year. That’s the Indianapolis charter school that caused problems for former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who also changed the way grades were calculated to raise the school’s rating.

Department of Education officials had recommended that this year, the school receive a grade based on partial information because the high school hasn’t been in operation long enough to collect all the data points used in the typical calculation. Still, Ritz said the rules allowed for the use of partial data.

Board members disagreed, voting instead to base the school’s rating only on its middle and elementary school performance, a move that will raise the school’s overall grade.

“Above all else we want the system to have integrity. I want them to mean something,” said board member Sarah O’Brien, who voted for the change. The letter grades produced by the rules need to “match what we’re seeing in these buildings.”

In addition, Guerin Catholic High School Principal James McNeany told the board that his school had discovered an error in the data used to determine its grade but had initially been unable to convince the Department of Education to make a change. Eventually, the department acknowledged that some data may not have been included and is working now on a change.

But education officials acknowledged that the change could affect as many as four other schools.

“That’s making me nervous,” said board member Andrea Neal.

Other board members were frustrated that the Legislative Services Agency had not finished running the numbers to confirm the grades calculated by the Department of Education. A study of the issues involving Bennett and Christel House led to the recommendation that LSA serve as a backup or a check on the education department.

Ritz said the information had been sent to LSA several weeks ago but the agency – which writes and analyzes legislation for the General Assembly – had not finished its work. She said it should be completed next week.

That prompted board member Brad Oliver to propose delaying the vote on all the grades. “Let’s table it” until the comparative analysis is done, he said. “Then we’ll know beyond a shadow of doubt it’s as good as we can get it right now.”

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