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In defense of public education

Hoosier supporters of public education have two opportunities to become more informed and involved. One is Saturday, with a membership meeting of the Indiana Colaition for Public Education.

Gubernatorial candidate John Gregg and his running mate, Sen. Vi Simpson will speak, along with a panel of legislators addressing education-related issues likely to come before the General Assembly next year. Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart and Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, will participate.

The meeting begins with an address by Gregg at 2 p.m., followed by the legislative panel at 3 and Simpson's remarks at4 p.m.

Republican candidate for governor Mike Pence and lieutenant governor candidate Sue Ellspermann were invited but unable to attend.

The event is at the Dean Evans Community and EducationCenter, 8550 Woodfield Crossing Indianapolis. For more information, go to

Northeast IndianaFriends of Public Education will meet at 7 p.m.on Thursday, Oct. 4, a t the Allen County Public Library in downtownFort Wayne. "All those interested in saving public education for our children are welcome," according to the organizers.

Learn more at

Vic Smith, a retired Indiana educator, spends countless hours working on behalf of public education, dissecting claims made by so-called reformers and attempting to set the record straight on school achievement.

Here's his latest take, on the state's A-F grading system. The Indiana Department of Education is expected to (belatedly) release letter grades at the Oct. 10 meeting of the State Board of Education :

Tony Bennett's flawed A-F system is hurting efforts to bring jobs to Indiana.

The Mayor of Goshen drove three hours to bring that message to the only public hearing on the A-F model last January. His community was working overtime to attract new businesses, and the first thing businesses ask is about the quality of the schools. He knew the schools were top notch, serving a student population of great diversity, but Tony Bennett's grading system was undervaluing the schools in his community. For the sake of economic development, he asked for a revised plan to grade schools.

He was ignored, but in an election season when jobs and the economy are the biggest issues, Tony Bennett should have listened. Since January, I have heard many express the mayor's concern, asking: Why would Tony Bennett want to undervalue and degrade the schools of Indiana when our communities are struggling with the Great Recession and the loss of jobs? Why wouldn't he want a more accurate and more realistic profile of our schools to be available for economic development efforts?

Is the A-F system unfair in the way it devalues many Indiana schools?

Clearly and definitively, the answer is yes.

What is the evidence of this injustice?

Florida was Tony Bennett's role model as he worked to change Indiana's PL 221 to a letter grade system, a change that has been one of the signature efforts of his four-year term as state superintendent. He brought Jeb Bush to Indiana to speak to the Roundtable in September of 2009 about Florida's system. He brought Florida leaders to testify during legislative debates. Thus, the attached comparison between Indiana scores and Florida scores on the National Assessment, which some of you have seen, is crucial.

The comparison shows that Indiana students, on the same test, absolutely outscored Florida students on 4th and 8th grade math, most recently by 3 percent and 9 percent respectively, and on 8th grade reading, most recently by 5 percent. The same pattern has held true during the last four national assessments. Only 4th grade reading scores favored Florida over Indiana, which were the only data presented to the Roundtable meeting when Jeb Bush visited. For those who prefer to look at the proficient standard for high ability students, the same pattern holds. Overall, Indiana has consistently outperformed Florida on the National Assessment.

Then why, one must ask, is Tony Bennett ready to impose a grading system that, by IDOE figures released in February, would give D's or F's to 22 percent of Indiana's schools, while Florida gives D's or F's to only 6 percent of its schools? He has incorrectly calibrated this system and given Indiana schools lower grades than they deserve to the detriment of economic development in communities across Indiana. Indiana does not deserve school letter grades that are over three times lower than Florida.

When I presented this Indiana vs. Florida comparison in testimony to the Select Commission on Education in June, I heard only one weak response from IDOE officials. They told the Select Commission that Florida had higher numbers of low grades when they started their system several years back, and now Indiana can expect to have higher numbers of low grades as we begin our system.

Think about that for a moment. That kind of reasoning is why we are having trouble in Indiana.

I characterize this as a weak response because it ignores the fact that the National Assessment shows the most recent performance of both states, and Indiana clearly outscores Florida. This reality should have nothing to do with phase-in expectations or start-up issues. If Indiana is currently outperforming Florida, our letter grades should be at least in the same ballpark as Florida's.

Is there additional evidence?

The National Assessment provides direct and devastating evidence of how Tony Bennett's A-F system defames and devalues the schools of Indiana compared to Florida, but it is not the only evidence available on this issue. In addition, there is corroborating evidence that Indiana schools do not deserve a kick in the teeth. Take a look at the last 22 years of historical trends in Indiana schools on ten indicators. These data show whether Indianahas gone up or down over the years on everything from attendance and graduation rates to SAT and ISTEP scores. Then the range of results for the past 22 years is displayed. As you will see on the bottom line, the conclusion is that on eight of the ten indicators studied, Indiana stands at or near its historic high. Our schools on most points have never been better. We currently have the best graduation rate in our history – 85.7 percent-- and our lowest dropout rate in our history – 6.1 percent.

This provides additional evidence that Indiana schools deserve far better than Tony Bennett's A-F system.

When will we see the grades?

The rollout of Tony Bennett's flawed A-F system is off to a shaky start and has become an issue in itself.

Instead of approving preliminary school grades at the August 30th State Board meeting as originally scheduled in the board agenda, Dr. Bennett revised the agenda on the day of the meeting and announced an 11-day delay until September 10th. After schools get their preliminary grades on that date, he said they would have until September 21st to appeal. He said that the State Board would approve the grades and make them public on October 3rd, the day of the next State Board meeting.

While he tried to put a good face on this delay, Dr. Bennett can't be pleased that his grading system, one of the biggest initiatives in his four-year term, missed its first announced deadline in the midst of his first reelection campaign. I have heard three questions as people speculate on the cause of the delay: 1) Is his staff too small for calculations that are too complex? 2) Are so many highly regarded schools about to get low grades that he wanted to recheck every figure to be ready to defend the system? and 3) Is this the first of a series of delays designed to delay school grade announcements until after the election, so that the heat that is sure to come over unfair grades will fall after the voting on November 6th?

Or is it all of the above?

And now word came this week on September 10th of another delay, saying that preliminary school letter grades "will be released later this week." Does anyone want to add more speculation about what caused a second delay?


That the A-F system has become an issue in the November 6th election is a natural result of our democracy. When all 35 speakers testified against the flawed system in the only public hearing last January, Tony Bennett didn't listen. He didn't even attend the hearing. Over the objections of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Public Charter School Association, and many other groups and individuals, he got the system passed through his sheer power over the State Board of Education.

When the Indiana Chamber of Commerce called in June for a putting this system on hold for a year to repair the flaws, Tony Bennett didn't listen. He said he had to comply with the federal waiver that he wrote.

Clearly, objecting to federal control is not in Tony Bennett's mindset.

Besides incorrectly calibrating the school letter grades to a more punitive result thanIndianaschools deserve, there are two major, and I would say illegal, flaws in Tony Bennett's A-F system:

1)It does not set up categories of improvement as the law requires.

"IC 20-31-8-3 Sec. 3. The state board shall establish a number of categories or designations of school improvement based on the improvement that a school makes in performance of the measures determined by the board with the advice of the education roundtable. The categories or designations must reflect various levels of improvement."

Instead of setting up categories based on improvement or growth, Tony Bennett's system bases letter grades on performance. The most important factor in the school grade will be the performance of the school on math and English tests. The base grade is only tweaked based on growth. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce noted this as the first problem in their list of objections presented to the Select Commission, saying that the focus on the pass/fail rate "incentives continuing focus on the bubble kids", referring to the problem that students who are close to getting over the cut score get the most attention. We need a system that gets us away from over-attention to the "bubble kids."

2)The growth model used for bonuses and penalties is based, not on a clear criterion score, but on the performance of peers across the state.

School leaders are frustrated that they can't calculate their own grade without statewide data they don't have regarding growth. The bonuses and the penalties for growth can only be calculated based on each individual's growth compared to the total state performance of peers. This, in my view, violates IC 20-31-8-2(b): (b) The department shall assess improvement in the following manner: (1) Compare each school and each school corporation with its own prior performance and not to the performance of other schools or school corporations. The labeling of high and low growth students does indeed use comparisons involving the students of other schools and school corporations.

The only remaining path to repairing the A-F system is at the ballot box on November 6th. Elections are the accountability system for leaders who ignore their stakeholders.

Glenda Ritz has called for a revised A-F system. She listens. I support Glenda Ritz for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

I urge you to support Glenda Ritz in any way you can, with yard signs, bumper stickers or by talking with family members, neighbors and friends. The general public knows very little about the A-F system and the injustice to our schools that I have just described. Help your friends and neighbors understand this issue, and ask them to support Glenda Ritz to remedy this problem.

Best wishes,

Vic Smith

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at