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Tony Bennett Grading Scandal: New Report Offers Lessons for Other States

A new report commissioned by legislative leaders in Indiana finds that the changes made to the state's grading system, which benefited a charter school run by a political donor to former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, were "plausible."

But the report goes on to showcase the problems with implementing a radically new school-rating system by a state department of education that, like many education offices across the country, is struggling with human and technical capacity issues.

Indiana's school-grading system was thrust into the national spotlight after an Associated Press investigation in July found that when he was state chief Bennett, a Republican, made changes to the rating system that benefited a charter school run by Christel DeHaan, a political donor to GOP—and Democratic—candidates.

The controversy caused Bennett to resign from his job as Florida's commissioner of education, a post he accepted after losing his Indiana job last year in that state's general election.

To Bennett and his supporters, the report provides vindication.

"The report clearly shows that accusations of manipulation of the A-F system for a single school are false and malicious. I am pleased with this vindication...," Bennett said in a statement.

State Sen. David Long, a Republican, said in a press conference today in Indianapolis the report shows "nothing nefarious." It's important to note that the Indiana legislature, which commissioned the report, is controlled by Republicans.

Overall, the authors of the Indiana report found that efforts to raise the grade of one charter school, the Christel House Academy, were "both an attempt to save the credibility of the new accountability model and a desire to treat a recognized good school fairly. Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report."

In other words, the authors didn't examine whether politics played a role in the grade changes.

In addition to deeming the grade changes "plausible," the authors found they were applied consistently to other schools.

Although limited to Indiana's system, the findings and recommendations make this report required reading for other states that are implementing new accountability systems.

The report found that the state education department underestimated the administrative and technical challenges associated with implementing a new accountability system. Because of the loss of key personnel, the department simply ran out of time to perform adequate programming and quality-control work. What's more, the report said that significant parts of the education community did not trust that the new rating system was accurate and fair.

The report called for more transparency around school-grading decisions in Indiana, and for piloting any new changes to the school accountability system before full implementation. It also recommended a school-rating system that is "as simple as possible, more easily understood..."

Armed with new No Child Left Behind Act waivers, 41 states, the District of Columbia, and eight districts in California are implementing new accountability systems. The issues that Indiana faced are likely facing all of these as well. Will other states learn from Indiana's experience?

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