State Board of Education debates new formula for determining Indiana school 'A-F' grades

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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana education leaders inched closer Wednesday to approving a new system for grading the state's schools, nearly a year after a secret overhaul of the school-grading formula by then-Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett was revealed.

The most noticeable change, when the new formula is approved at the next State Board of Education meeting, will be a shift away from a 4.0, GPA-style grading scale to a 100-point grading scale in determining what letter grade a school receives.

Members of the State Board of Education and a school grade review panel established in the wake of the Bennett grade-change scandal spent much of their time Wednesday reviewing a proposal for calculating "student growth" — one of the most important, and hotly contested, of the formula's components.

Panel members, who have spent the past year analyzing how to grade schools, said that two conflicting principles made it hard to reach a final decision: a simple, and easily understood school-grading formula and using "student growth" to determine grades.

"Once you bring in growth, simplicity goes out the window," said Steve Baker, a member of "A-F" review panel, and a principal at Bluffton High School.

The "student growth" component itself has split members of the review panel and the state board. The Bennett grading formula compared students and schools to their performance against other schools as a measure of whether they were improving. But state lawmakers said a different measure — examining how each individual student progresses in their education — must be used instead.

The letter grades, which were first approved by the State Board of Education in 2012 as an alternative to Indiana's previous school-rating system, have become a flashpoint in the state's ongoing education battles. School leaders across Indiana have criticized the letter grades, meanwhile supporters of Bennett's education changes have argued schools and teachers must be held accountable.

Lawmakers requested a new system in 2013, following extensive confusion and complaints about the system put in place by Bennett. The "A-F" review panel was formed after The Associated Press published emails showing Bennett and his staff had secretly overhauled the school grading formula to benefit a campaign donor's charter school.

Wednesday's meeting of the state board was both remarkably short and light-hearted compared to recent meetings. At some points Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz laughed along with the rest of the members at offhand jokes.

It was a different tone from some of their battles over the past year. The Democratic Ritz, Republican Gov. Mike Pence and their respective supporters have spent more than a year in a variety of disputes.

The board voted twice, without much debate, to approve new operating rules and also accept a Pence aide as the general counsel. Previous disputes have focused on control of board operations through operating procedures and a shift of staffing away from Ritz's department to Pence's newly created education agency.

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