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Indiana delays release of A to F school grades

Alan Petersime

Indiana State Board of Education members shelved today’s planned release of A to F grades for all Indiana schools after a sharp debate which included criticism of whether state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her lieutenants properly screened the data for errors.

A mistake in the data that was brought to light at the state board meeting affected about five of more than 2,100 schools, but board members decided they wanted an outside review to double check the grades before approving them and making them public.

The schools in question might have lost credit toward their grades because of a mistake by a company that administers International Baccalaureate tests that high school students take when they finish advanced classes, state officials said. Indiana Department of Education staff said they discovered late in the grading process that the company had accidentally failed to submit results for Indiana students at about five schools but told the board the error would be fixed.

High schools get extra credit toward their grades when students successfully complete advanced classes. Representatives for Carmel’s Guerin Catholic High School said they were given a zero on that measure and the school’s appeal was denied. Education department officials said today that they were in the process of correcting that error, which could change the grade for Guerin and a handful of others. They suggested the board approve the rest of the A to F grades and vote separately to assign grades to the affected schools next month.

But state board members said they wanted the rest of the grades checked by the Legislative Service Agency to assure they were correct. That meant schools weren’t able to publicly release their school grades today as planned.

“The department has the incredible task of calculating (grades) and the board has the statutory duty to make sure they are right until we release them,” Brad Oliver said.

Ritz said minor data errors occurred every year and urged the board to follow the education department’s recommendation to go ahead with the release of grades. But later, she voted with the majority to table the grades until the next meeting on Nov. 5. Only Gordon Hendry voted no on Brad Oliver’s motion, which passed 7-1.

Ritz said she was willing all along to submit the data for an outside evaluation, and that’s why she voted in favor of Oliver’s motion. In fact, she said, the department already shared the data with Legislative Service Agency for double checking.

“I’ve been a proponent of making sure that happens,” she said.

The debate recalled last year’s battle between Ritz and the rest of the board over delaying the release of A to F grades, but this time the board and the education department took opposite positions from where they stood in 2013.

Last year, board members grew frustrated when grades were not released by mid-October and sought to circumvent Ritz to release the grades over her objections. Last Oct. 16 — almost a year ago to the day — board members sent a letter to legislative leaders asking them to direct the Legislative Service Agency, which provides data and other supports to state lawmakers, to calculate the grades. Ritz responded with a lawsuit, later dismissed, arguing the board violated state open meetings law by deciding to send the letter outside of a public meeting.

Last year, Ritz said glitches that occurred when students took the state ISTEP test online slowed the education department’s work to prepare the grades, but other state board members believed she was dragging her feet. After an acrimonious month of tense board meetings, the grades were rechecked by LSA and finally issued this past December.

This time, it was the education department arguing there was no need to delay the release and the board members asking to hold off so LSA again could check its work. Board members directed criticism at Ritz and her team for not ensuring that check was done before the board vote was scheduled.

“Somehow a lack of leadership a lack of attention to detail places us in a really bad position because school superintendents and schools are looking for this info today, and you have not provided some of the key ingredients to us to making a complete decision,” board member David Freitas said.

Board member Andrea Neal said she was surprised department officials did not catch the error with International Baccalaureate results before local school officials noticed problems and did not move more quickly to investigate.

“If they hadn’t caught it, we’d release the wrong grades for other schools,” she said. “It makes sense to take a step back, make sure all grades have been properly given that once over, and it’s a matter of a couple of weeks, so what’s the harm?”

Ritz, however countered the data-checking process worked just as it was supposed to. Each year, she said, a small number of errors are found among the large amounts of data that make up the system, usually when schools notice something out of the ordinary.

“That’s the whole process of the appeal,” she said. “We give over a month for people to appeal so that we can make sure all the data is correct. All the schools are involved.”

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