Indiana report finds no wrongdoing in school grading by Tony Bennett
The Indiana controversy that led Tony Bennett to resign as Florida education commissioner in August didn't carry the whiff of a scandal as much as the struggles of an understaffed department trying to implement a new school grading plan, according to a report issued Friday.
The report, requested by the Republican leaders of Indiana's House and Senate, details a system that underestimated the complexities of the work before it, and that was further hindered by a loss of key staff. Also hurting the effort, the report stated, was a lack of widespread understanding and trust in the new system, despite attempts by Bennett's department to reach out.
The primary findings:
1) The authors found that IDOE under-estimated administrative and technical challenges associated with developing the new administrative rule, computer programming and testing necessary to implement the new rule, and obtaining feedback relative to 2011-12 grades.
2) Because the Bennett administrative rule did not contemplate all of the numerous school configurations in place during 2011-12, it was necessary for IDOE to make certain interpretations including the decision to eliminate HS. scores from the Christel House Academy’s grade. The authors found that this interpretation was consistently applied to 16 other schools which had analogous situations.
3) The removal of the EMS “subject matter growth caps” impacted the final scores and grades of 165 schools. According to former IDOE staff, language in the final approved rule intended that there be no EMS subject matter caps, however, these caps were erroneously included in the computer programming of the model. This mistake was discovered and corrected prior to the September 19, 2012 embargoed release of school grades and related data.
4) With regard to the final disposition of the grade for the Christel House Academy, the authors heard from both Dr. Bennett’s critics and supporters that his focus on the Christel House Academy was because of its widely accepted reputation as an excellent school, which functioned as a quality control indicator. However, when the school’s grade was initially found to be a C, Dr. Bennett expressed surprise and dissatisfaction. These expressions prompted an energetic response to find solutions to what was perceived to be an unfair and inaccurate result. From the emails, it is apparent that IDOE staff worked diligently, over a period of several days in an effort to respond to this situation. In the end, the Authors found that the two adjustments administered to determine Christel House Academy’s final grade were plausible and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances.
5) Although efforts were made by Dr. Bennett and his staff to interact with educational stakeholders and practitioners, a significant portion of the educational community did not understand or trust in the accuracy or fairness of the Bennett Rule’s Metrics, did not believe the that the metrics represented essential accountability constructs, and did not believe that the Rule treated different school formats [public, private, charter] equally and fairly.
6) IDOE’s ability to finalize the accountability system, perform quality control simulations, and to produce final output was clearly compromised by the loss of several key technical staff beginning in summer, 2011 through summer, 2012.
7) In part due to the loss of key IDOE technical staff, there was inadequate time to complete final programming and perform quality control work, prior to release of each school’s final grades.
All along, Bennett maintained that he had done nothing wrong, and accused his opponents of attempting to smear him politically. 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.