Tony Bennett scandal sparks new discussion on validity of school grading

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned last week over his actions involving decisions on school grades in Indiana.
Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned last week over his actions involving decisions on school grades in Indiana.
Published Aug. 5, 2013

The national push to grade schools has slammed into an unexpected roadblock, causing even supporters to question the validity of the widely celebrated A-F system that Florida started 14 years ago.

Thank former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett.

"This conversation was coming," said Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst for the nonpartisan New America Foundation. "The actions of Tony Bennett and his staff, and what happened in Indiana, made it come sooner. ...

"What happened in Indiana undermined a lot of the accountability principles that Tony Bennett seemed to want to uphold."

In his zeal to ensure the credibility of a fledgling grading system in Indiana, Bennett decided to tweak the formula as state superintendent in 2012 when it became clear that one school — run by a political supporter — wasn't on track for the A grade he believed it deserved.

The story exploded last week, just days after Bennett conducted a more public rejiggering of Florida's school grading system. He resigned Thursday, leaving in his wake questions about whether A-F school grading can be fair and equitable.

Emboldened critics are calling for school grading to end.

"The events of the past month prove that it is subject to public and private manipulation by politicians," Christine Bramuchi of Fund Education Now, a central Florida group, said in a news release. "It is an unfair and arbitrary system that hurts children, teachers and our state."

The teachers union in Indiana called for an immediate suspension of its state's grading.

Joining the chorus of concern, although at a lower pitch, were some national policy analysts who in the past had offered some of the most full-throated support for school grades as the policy spread across the country.

"I don't know that we've been careful enough or transparent enough about what is driving these school grades," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Petrilli said Bennett's actions in Indiana highlighted that school grades often are based on judgment calls.

"We should be clear about that, and then be cautious about what decisions we make with them," he said. "We might need to be more careful about tying high stakes to them."

In Florida, schools stand to get or lose money based on their grades. Teachers and principals can lose their jobs because of the grades. Families market their homes based on the grades.

With so much on the line, Petrilli suggested, "We have got to be really sure that we are identifying these schools correctly."

It's more of an art than a science, said Andy Smarick, a former New Jersey deputy education commissioner who has helped create some models.

"No matter which components you put in the system, no matter how you weight them, you are always going to have some schools that pop up" as seeming to be graded against common sense, Smarick said.

"Schools are really complicated organizations, and when you try to simplify them down to a single letter grade, this is one of the consequences."

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Offering single grades might help parents and the public identify schools with high performance on the measures, he said, but "you are going to miss part of the story."

Hyslop, who helped create an accountability system for Virginia's early education system, suggested that if Florida and other states follow a "mend it, don't end it" philosophy, they might look at ideas such as grading schools on individual components rather than giving them a single mark.

"Maybe we've tried to oversimplify the system," she said, "and not painted a fair picture of what's going on."

That's been the position of the critics, both in Florida and outside. Even some Florida educators who had been supportive in the past are now saying they don't accept state grades as meaningful.

"I'm going to own our data," said Katie Lail, principal of Pasco Elementary School in Pasco County. "Whatever the state wants to put as a grade, I'm not going to own that. I'm just not. Because every year it's different."

Patricia Levesque, who helped create the A-F grading model and now runs former Gov. Jeb Bush's two education foundations, said the dustup in Florida doesn't mean the whole concept should be tossed.

"This just shows how powerful the A-F system is," Levesque said. "The fact that the label means something to parents means that it is going to be subject to scrutiny."

States like Virginia are paying close attention.

"We are watching Florida and we are afraid," said Steven Staples, executive director of the Virginia superintendents association. "We often tell our lawmakers that if they look at states like Florida, they'll realize this is not a path we should be on."

Virginia lawmakers approved an A-F grading system this year. The bill was signed into law despite strong opposition from groups like Staples' and a close vote in the Senate.

Staples said superintendents in Virginia have been emailing articles from Florida newspapers to one another. The Democratic lawmakers who tried to fight the measure have taken note, too.

Sen. John Miller, a Newport News Democrat, said he hoped Virginia education officials would learn from Florida's follies when crafting their formula and put a premium on transparency.

Virginia hopes to award its first grades by October 2014.

Education officials in Maine, however, are undeterred by concerns in Florida.

"We've seen on Twitter and online the coverage of what's been going on in other states, but we're full steam ahead," education department spokeswoman Samantha Warren said.

Maine issued its first school report cards this spring.

Warren said Maine hoped to avoid some of the problems experienced in states like Florida by keeping its grading formula simple. The formula for grading high schools, she said, considers only proficiency, growth and graduation rates.

"The simplicity helps us with credibility in light of some of the questions being raised in other states," Warren said.

Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she hoped Florida would find a workable solution in this needed conversation.

She reiterated her support for a system that lets educators know what they're doing well and poorly.

"It doesn't bother me that we do it," Elia said of grading. "It just needs to be done correctly."

She had expected Bennett to put together a committee, including many outside experts, to analyze the formula and its validity. That work must take place, she said.

There's no time to waste, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego agreed.

"They need to decide if this is a system of improvement or if this is a system of sledgehammering," Grego said, noting that the A-F model has hurt morale, even among students. "We are at a crossroads."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.