As education commissioner in Indiana, Tony Bennett pushed an accountability system that gave each school a grade. When an Indianapolis charter school funded by a Republican donor earned a C, Bennett and his staff changed the grading system to raise the grade to an A, reports Associated Press.
Bennett had praised Christel House Academy in speeches as a high-performing school serving predominantly low-income students. The school was founded by Christel DeHaan, who’s given “more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders,” reports AP.
“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.
Bennett lost re-election in Indiana but was hired by Florida, where he’s now revising the state’s grading system.
On Sept. 12, Jon Gubera, Indiana’s grading director, told Bennett that Christel House Academy had scored a 2.9, a C, because of “terrible” 10th-grade algebra scores.
A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a “C’’ to an “A,” including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high “B’’ look like an “A’’ and changing the grade just for Christel House.
. . . When he requested a status update Sept. 14, his staff alerted him that the new school grade, a 3.50, was painfully close to an “A.” Then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown wrote that the state might not be able to “legally” change the cutoff for an “A.”
“We can revise the rule,” Bennett responded.
Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously to get Christel House its “A.” By Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75.
Bennett claims he fixed a glitch that affected schools that combined grade levels. Christel House was a K-10 school last year and is adding an 11th grade this year.
In an interview with Rick Hess, Bennett explains that 13 schools were penalized for not having an 11th or 12th grade:
In our first run of the new school calculations in Indiana, we turned up an anomaly in the results. As we were looking at the grades we were giving our schools, we realized that state law created an unfair penalty for schools that didn’t have 11th and 12th grades. Statewide, there were 13 schools in question had unusual grade configurations. The data for grades 11 and 12 came in as zero. When we caught it, we fixed it. That’s what this is all about.
Christel House was one of the top charter schools in the state, Bennett told the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. The low grade showed something was wrong with the grading system, he said.
Bennett said that Indiana was in the midst of finalizing its school grading formula when the email exchange took place. He said he had hoped to use high-performing schools like Christel House to calibrate the system.
“We needed to make sure the school grades reflected how the schools really performed,” he said.
Any evaluation system must include a “qualitative reality check,” writes Greg Forster on Jay P. Greene’s Blog. “All educational standards privilege someone’s opinion of what is a good school, and government privileges the opinion of powerful interests.”