Christel House Academy, the charter school that earned an A in 2012 only after former state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s lieutenants made changes to the grading formula, was given an F on Friday for 2013.
But officials from the school, which some accused of receiving special treatment last year, said it’s this year’s F grade that they can prove is unfair. Their appeal, which was denied, should have resulted in a grade change, school officials said.
In fact, Christel House’s CEO Carey Dahncke said the school’s grade called into question new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s assertion that testing errors last May had minimal effect on student scores or school grades. Dahncke said the school’s own analysis showed 90 percent of Christel House students who passed state tests last year but failed this year were also among those who were kicked offline during testing.
“That was the common element,” he said. “It is due to the testing disruptions.”
After months of problems, the Indiana State Board of Education Friday issued A to F grades for all schools more than seven weeks later than last year. The delay had become a point of contention between Ritz and the state board, escalating political tensions that had been building over questions of who guides education policy in Indiana.
But the protracted discussion and internal vetting of ISTEP test results and the new grades did not erase questions about whether the grades are valid.
In May, about 80,000 of the roughly 500,000 students who took ISTEP experienced problems taking the test online. In some cases, the test froze or response time lagged. Some students had to repeatedly log back in.
Over the summer the state hired an outside evaluator to verify the validity of the scores. His report found just 1,400 student tests were invalid, causing virtually no impact on school and district results, state officials said.
Still, it’s not just Christel House that is concerned that their grades were impacted by the testing problems, despite the education department’s assurances.
“That was a pretty widespread thought,” said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “Whether that manifested itself into actual grade changes. That’s a good question.”
Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said all appeals were carefully considered, including Christel House.
“They went through the exact same process as every other school,” he said.
But Christel House, which has earned A grades since 2006, saw 40 percent of its 679 test takers affected by glitches, school officials said. At several grade levels, it was those same kids who failed the test and contributed to a slide in the school’s passing rates.
Last year 81 percent of Christel House students passed both English and math on ISTEP, about 10 points above the state average. This year, the passing rate for the school dropped to 71 percent.
Some examples from Christel House’s internal review:
- Last year 95 percent of third graders passed the state’s third grade reading test. In fourth grade this year, just 61 percent passed the English test. All of the 15 students who passed at third grade but failed in fourth grade had a testing disruption.
- In seventh grade, the passing rate in math fell to 55 percent passing from 91 percent the prior year, when the students were in sixth grade. Again, all 19 students who went from passing to failing faced testing problems.
- At eighth grade, all eight students who failed in 2013 but passed the prior year experienced ISTEP glitches.
“You’d have to be teaching kids the wrong thing to have that many kids go from passing to failing,” Dahncke said. “None of it adds up.”
So much of Christel House’s test data appeared to be affected by ISTEP problems that it appealed its F grade and asked instead to be given no grade for this year, Dahncke said.
“You can’t calculate a grade with all this bad data,” he said.
Christel House was among about 150 schools that appealed their grades. At Friday’s state board meeting, education department staff said no schools who appealed their grades based on concerns about ISTEP testing problems were approved for a grade change.
The school’s 2012 grade was at the center of a stormy debate over whether Bennett manipulated the A to F formula to help Christel House maintain its A.
News reports last summer revealed emails from the fall of 2012, obtained through public records request, in which Bennett’s staff fretted that Christel House might not receive an A. Research by Bennett’s team led to a proposal to tweak the grading formula in a way that raised grades for Christel House, serving students in grades K to 10, and 11 other schools with unusual grade configurations,. That brought charges from Bennett’s critics that the A was undeserved.
An outside review of Bennett’s formula changes from a pair of consultants hired by Republican legislative leaders later ruled called them “plausible” but declined to explore the motivations of Bennett and his lieutenants.