Putting Education Reform To The Test

Indiana Report Finds Bennett’s Grade Changes Were “Plausible”

A new report says changes former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett made to Indiana's school grading formula were "plausible."

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

A new report says changes former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett made to Indiana's school grading formula were "plausible."

An Indiana report has found that school grading formula changes former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett made in 2012 while the elected superintendent of Hoosier State schools were “plausible” and “consistently applied” to all schools.

Indiana lawmakers requested the review after the Associated Press published emails showing Bennett and his staff discussing how to change the school grading formula. The emails showed Bennett was concerned about the formula after a prominent charter school, Christel House Academy, initially earned a ‘C’ grade. The school earned an ‘A’ grade after the changes.

Bennett resigned as Florida’s education commissioner last month, just days after the initial Associated Press story. Bennett said he had done nothing wrong, but did not want to be a distraction.

The Indiana report backs his claims, though does note the Indiana Department of Education needed to be more transparent and work more closely with lawmakers and the governor. In addition, the report found the departure of key staff members were a factor in a lack of quality control prior to releasing the school grades.

“The two adjustments administered to determine Christel House’s final grade were plausible,” John Grew and William Sheldrake, the report’s authors, wrote, “and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances.”

The report also found that educators did not believe the grading formula accurately or fairly represented a school’s performance, or treated different school types — public, private, charter — equally and fairly.

Bennett said he felt vindicated by the report.

“The report clearly shows that accusations of manipulation of the A-F system for a single school are false and malicious,” he said in a statement. “You will remember that when the Department of Education released school grades last year, I said the process was imperfect and could be improved greatly. Still, it is a far better measurement and accountability tool for our schools than has ever been used in our state.”

The report faulted Bennett and his staff for underestimating the “administration and technical challenges” of developing the new formula and the programming needed to calculate the grades. The report did not examine the political motivations of Bennett and his staff for making the changes.

Our colleagues at StateImpact Indiana dove into the details about the two changes Bennett made and the total impact those changes had on Indiana school grades.

The report recommends a number of changes to Indiana’s school grading formula, many of which might be considered as Florida considers revisions to its school grading system.

They include:

  • Working more closely with lawmakers and the governor to explain changes to the grading system.
  • Bringing in more outside experts for advice.
  • Be more open and transparent about changes to the formula.
  • Simplify the school grading system.
  • Put less emphasis on the percentage of students meeting state goals on tests — also known as proficiency — and more emphasis on the improvement of student scores from one year to the next.
  • Add measures other than test scores to the formula.
  • Pilot test any new formula for a year.

Many of the recommendations mirror those of experts StateImpact Florida spoke with last month.

UPDATE: Bennett has spoken with the Tampa Bay Times‘ Gradebook blog:

He said he resigned to avoid becoming a distraction to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and others pushing the education “reform” agenda here.

In an interview with the Gradebook, Bennett said he felt the report vindicated him, but that he did not regret stepping away from the Florida job despite always believing in the outcome.

“I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last months making sure we provided everything we had to the investigators,” Bennett said. “I didn’t believe I could do those things and be commissioner of Florida.”

He reiterated that no one forced him to resign.

“It was the fact that I was accused of a pretty serious offense,” Bennett said. “That was going to be a distraction. I didn’t believe that would be fair to anyone in Florida.”

He said he looked forward to a new chapter in his life, and that Florida was not in the picture. Bennett and his family are considering a return to southern Indiana.

UPDATE 2: The Associated Press spoke with Grew and Sheldrake:

Grew and Sheldrake said Friday that the report does not “exonerate” or “vindicate” Bennett, nor condemn him. They said it only explains how his team changed the grading formula.

You can read the report below:


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