Accountability

Indiana A-F Difficulties Linger, Despite Bennett’s Exoneration

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 23, 2014 5 min read
Tony Bennett ponders a question at a news conference last year, where he announced his resignation as Florida education commissioner. The move came following reports that Mr. Bennett had altered Indiana’s A-F school accountability system in his previous role as that state's education chief.

Although former Indiana education chief Tony Bennett was exonerated earlier this month by the state ethics commission for actions related to the state’s A-F school grading system two years ago, his fall from his prominent place in national policy debates still rankles his allies and admirers.

Mr. Bennett resigned as Florida’s education commissioner a year ago, after emails published by the Associated Press indicated that, in his previous job, he had altered Indiana’s A-F school accountability system in 2012 after learning that an Indianapolis charter school he had championed had received a lower-than-expected grade. He denied any wrongdoing, and both a 2013 review by Indiana legislators and a July report from state Inspector General David Thomas cleared him of any ethics violations in the grading-system changes.

Mr. Bennett, however, admitted to improperly using state-owned computers for his 2012 re-election campaign, which he lost to current state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz. He agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as part of a settlement approved by the ethics commission.

Mr. Bennett is now an executive consultant for the Aspire longitudinal-testing system created by ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company. He said that while he is grateful for official exonerations, he’s not “spiking the ball in the end zone.”

“Across the country, people are seeing that this is hard work,” Mr. Bennett said of school accountability systems. “Our intent was to get it right. I never, ever said that our system was perfect.”

Meanwhile, Indiana is considering major changes to its A-F policies at the heart of Mr. Bennett’s actions. For the past several months, with the backdrop of the controversy involving Mr. Bennett as well as many policy disagreements between Ms. Ritz and the state board of education, board members have been holding complex discussions about how to change the school grading system to increase transparency and clarity, among other priorities.

Transparency and Perception

As the Indiana superintendent, Mr. Bennett gained a national profile for, among other activities, his leadership of Chiefs for Change, a group of state chiefs who push for “high academic standards” and “transparent and rigorous accountability.”

In the 2012 emails at the center of the controversy, Mr. Bennett told his aides that if Christel House Academy—a charter school run by Christel DeHaan, who has been a donor to Mr. Bennett’s campaigns—did not receive an A, it would compromise the state’s entire accountability system. He also referred to “repeated lies” he had told state officials, a reference to his prior pledges that Christel House would receive high marks.

The school’s initial grade for 2011-12 was a C, largely because of low 10th grade algebra scores. It was changed to an A in final public reports.

However, both the report commissioned by the state legislature, as well as the inspector general’s report, concluded that Mr. Bennett had applied changes to the A-F system fairly and without favoritism. Several other schools also had their grades raised.

The story is still a raw wound for policy experts who say Mr. Bennett’s decision to change the grade for Christel House, and other schools with it, was an attempt to provide a more truthful picture of school performance, but was unfairly twisted by his opponents.

“I just have far greater sympathy for the people making decisions,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting group, who previously served as the deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey.

But while Mr. Bennett’s actions might have been justifiable on technical grounds, his failure to publicize the changes engendered distrust of a system designed, among other purposes, to help parents decide where to send their children to school, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the Washington-based New America Foundation, who has studied Mr. Bennett’s changes to the A-F system.

“Everyone should have known that this was how the system worked when the grades came out. They shouldn’t have found out after the fact,” she said.

A standardized and scheduled review of state accountability systems helps protect them from possible decisions based on whims and improves their standing, Ms. Hyslop added.

Mr. Bennett reiterated that his department had extensive dialogue with schools and the state board about preliminary A-F grades before they were published. He also said he didn’t feel remorse about praising Christel House to state leaders before more information about the school was available.

His real regret, Mr. Bennett said, was that the state’s quest for simplicity was not as simple as he and others thought it would be: “We terribly undersold the complexity with which the algorithm works to give you that one simple indicator.”

Ongoing Work

In crafting changes to the A-F system in Indiana, a panel of state board members is emphasizing creating a new system that “can be clearly communicated to parents” and schools, said Claire Fiddian-Green, who as a co-chief of the Indiana Center for Education and Career Innovation is overseeing the revisions along with the state department of education. The panel began meeting a year ago.

In addition, the panel has discussed how to emphasize student academic growth to a greater extent in the new A-F system without sacrificing the importance of proficiency, Ms. Fiddian-Green said.

“Our objective of having a simple, easy-to-explain system is a lot harder than what we thought,” she said.

A lot of the panel’s discussion has been about accountability measures for high school, such as the need to create an assessment system that covers grades 3-8 and 10th grade, as well as the possibility of using SAT and ACT participation to measure college and career readiness.

Ms. Fiddian-Green stressed that the effort to recast the A-F system stems from a state law signed in 2013, not from Mr. Bennett’s actions.

The revised system will be implemented in the 2014-15 school year. But the state board wants to conduct a trial run for the new system based on schools’ 2013-14 performance, then get feedback.

Meanwhile, the school at the center of Mr. Bennett’s emails, Christel House Academy, received an F from the state for the 2012-13 school year, although the school blamed its low student performance on technical problems with the state assessment.

Mr. Bennett said he is not considering a return to public office.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Indiana’s A-F Issues Linger, Despite Bennett Exoneration

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