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Options Indiana School Officials Discussed for Adjusting Grades

Throughout the coverage of the Indiana A-F school grades in 2012 and just how then-superintendent Tony Bennett was involved in changing them, stories have repeatedly pointed out that it's not clear exactly how state K-12 officials changed the system to benefit the Christel House Academy charter school and others. But a document posted by the Associated Press, whose Indiana politics reporter Tom LoBianco broke the story, could provide a clue into how the department under Bennett ultimately decided to change the grading system, and ultimately dumped Bennett and that system into some very hot and very public water.

The potential clue comes in the form of "Option 1" for changing the system in an email that appears to be from Sept. 13, 2012, one day after Bennett's office first received word that Christel House would not receive an A grade, much to Bennett's alarm. You can see from the notes that this option, for those schools with elementary or middle school grades as well as high school grades, a new formula would assign one set of values for the elementary and middle school students based on enrollment, and another set of values just to high schools.

What's the key here? You can see comments in the margin from "wkrebs," an apparent reference to Will Krebs, Indiana's then-director of policy and research who was included in the initial email chain uncovered by the AP, stating that there are at least two loopholes to the new formula being laid out that apply to Christel House. For example, part of the formula would involve four weighted areas (which for high schools in the A-F system are the English 10 end-of-course assessment; the Algebra I end-of-course assessment; the graduation rate; and "college and career readiness.") But Krebs highlighted the "four weighted areas" section and wrote: "This is a loophole. Christel House doesn't have four weighted scores, so you can't calculate the combined school grade with this methodology.

Krebs also made clear that Christel House wasn't considered an official high school because at the time it ended at grade 10 and lacked grades 11 and 12.

So what does this option ultimately mean? It appears as if several schools, including Christel House, would receive a school grade based on the "Option 1" formula that applied to both elementary and middle schools, but not high schools. In other words, the test results for grades 9 and 10 simply wouldn't count, because of course, elementary and middle schools don't include those grades. Many high schools do, of course, but then remember that Krebs said Christel House wasn't really a high school at all. (What exactly would have been the best phrase to describe Christel House in terms of grade level for 2011-12?)

Scott Elliott, in an article for The Indianapolis Star about how two other Indianapolis Public Schools might have been spared from state takeover if they had been given the same treatment as Christel House, also discussed this "Option 1." In an interview with Elliott, Krebs denied he was seeking special treatment just for Christel House in his comments.

In "Option 1" a key practical question is considered: Will more schools adopt a 6-10 grade model if they know they can get away with not having 9th and 10th grade academic results count? The reply from somebody in red is: "Not in the immediate if we don't advertise this everywhere." To another question, whether or not there would be a separate calculation and label for only the 9th and 10th grade results from Christel House, the answer in red is "no additional grade, no label."

A Sept. 14 email from Jon Gubera, the state's chief accountability officer at the time, stated that, "Option one works. I have notes in red on the attached doc." (Gubera is now a lobbyist at the College Board. I've called and emailed Gubera, but he has not responded.)

And finally, there's an Option 2 that was submitted. The document notes that Christel House's website mentions a Watanabe High School as part of the Christel House Academy. It goes on to say that it "begs the question" of why it's being calculated as a combined school, and then proposes that officials either split off Watanabe from Christel House entirely for accountability purposes, or "infer" that the academy is in fact two schools and use separate calculations for elementary and middle, and then high school accountability. (Why the department would need to "infer" anything about the basic structure of one of its own public schools is unclear.) Search for Watanabe on the department's report cards for individual schools, and you'll find nothing. Regardless, Christel House is the only school mentioned in both Option 1 and Option 2.

What remains unclear is if "Option 1" was actually the method officials ended up using to alter the A-F system. Given what I've just cited, it seems at least a possibility, but that doesn't constitute definitive proof. Perhaps more information will come to light shortly about this process.

After Sept. 14, the next email AP published for its story seems to have been from Sept. 21, when Gubera reports on significant progress on reporting grades and that some in fact did go up, although he doesn't mention which schools in particular went up. As for charters in general, he states that after the changes, over half of charter schools would now get C grades or better. (At least two of the schools on the list of 13 mentioned in Option 1, Richmond Academy and Eman Schools, are private schools, not charters.)

Defending himself from charges of misconduct, Bennett told reporters July 30 that graduation rates, and the lack of them for schools like Christel House that ended in 10th grade, led to them being "unfairly penalized" and to the subsequent change his department made to the A-F system. Aside from a reference to the "four weighted areas," graduation rates aren't mentioned as an issue in the AP document I've just discussed.

By the way, Krebs left Indiana to become Bennett's deputy chief of staff in Florida. And Dale Chu, an assistant state superintendent in Indiana at the time who is now Bennett's chief of staff in Florida, was also copied in the email chain about the A-F grades and Christel House published by the AP.

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