(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

The letter-grade system for Indiana schools—rolled out in 2011—was designed to make education easier to understand. Parents, the thinking went, could easily read the A through F grades and know which schools were performing well and which had more work to do. Then they could make decisions accordingly. Simple.

But the initiative has been anything but simple. Instead, since 2011, the new grading scheme has been repeatedly at the center of fierce debates.

Twice, state officials overhauled the grading formula. And in 2013, controversy erupted over allegations that school grades were manipulated by former state Superintendent Tony Bennett for political reasons.

In 2015, Indiana will try once again to change the school-grading formula—this time with the goal of making the grades better reflect how well schools are preparing students for college or careers. It’s the latest in a long run of adjustments to the way schools are judged by the state.

Making changes

The state has categorized schools for years based on the percentage of students that pass state tests in math and English. Schools with less than 60 percent passing state tests were placed on “academic probation.” Categories changed at 70, 80 and 90 percent passing. While there was not a traditional “growth” measure for test score improvement, gains in percent passing over the prior year could earn schools extra credit.

In 2011, Indiana replaced its old rating categories with A to F grades — “exemplary” became an A, “commendable” a B, “academic progress” a C, “academic watch” a D and “academic probation” an F.

Bennett’s goal, he said, was to make school grades more understandable. For parents, a label with a name like “academic watch” might not make it clear how the school’s test scores suggested it was performing, Bennett argued. But replacing those words with a “D” grade would clarify that the school was truly in need of improvement, perhaps prompting new urgency for change, he said.

Critics fought the change, saying letter grades could have harmful effects. Labeling a troubled school an “F,” for instance, might demoralize students and staff, confounding efforts to improve the schools, some argued. High-rated schools were sometimes wary that small, temporary slips, such as from an A to a B, could have real consequences, perhaps even causing property values to fall in ultra-competitive communities.

The letter grades didn’t change the mandated consequences for poor performance. Schools that persisted in the lowest category faced the possibility of state takeover after six years. As letter grades replaced the old categories, the formula for placing schools in categories stayed the same for the first year, based heavily on the percentage of students who passed state tests. But Bennett promised an overhaul of the grading criteria for 2012.

At the same time, Indiana asked for a release from the accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The state was among the earliest applicants to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver to allow it to create a new system for judging school quality, submitting its new A to F plan as the blueprint.

A new system

BennettMug
Former state Superintendent Tony Bennett

Bennett’s 2012 revision to the A to F calculation method called for considering new factors to determine a school’s grade.

The system was set up to give credit to schools that demonstrate that they are making kids “college and career ready” by tracking the percentage of kids who take advanced classes, college courses or earn industry certifications, again with bonuses or penalties attached.

But the centerpiece of the new system was a new test score “growth measure” that aimed to give rewards and punishments based on how much the lowest-scoring students improved. Modeled after a system in Colorado, the growth measure matched groups of similar students — those with similar prior test scores and demographic characteristics — and compared how each student did when measured against the rest of the group.

The new system came under criticism the moment it was proposed. At a public hearing in January of 2012, a parade of speakers representing rarely allied groups — urban schools, the chamber of commerce, superintendents, charter schools and others — opposed the new system. Mostly they complained it was either unfair or too hard for parents — or even schools — to understand.

Complaints notwithstanding, the Indiana State Board of Education approved Bennett’s revisions, and in the fall of 2012, the first grades came out under the new system.

Top grades were tougher to earn — A’s dropped to 41 percent from 47.5 percent of schools, while F’s were up slightly to 7 percent from 5 percent. But there were unexpected changes, such as a handful of schools that went from A to F or F to A.

Concerns persist

In 2013, lawmakers set about revising the system in response to public complaints.

The final bill, passed that spring, recommended several changes, especially junking the Colorado-style growth measure. Instead, lawmakers dictated that growth be measured as a student’s progress toward or above a passing score rather than examining how their test score gains compared to other students.

The legislature tasked a panel of experts with designing the framework of the new system, the Indiana Department of Education with developing the new process for awarding grades and the Indiana State Board of Education with approving the final plan in 2014.

The expert panel, jointly appointed by Gov. Mike Pence, State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, the state board and leaders in the state legislature, began work on recommendations in late 2013, delivering them to the state board in November. The board approved a framework for revising A to F grading.

A to F grading became such a flashpoint that even the issuing of 2013 grades caused tempers to flare on the state board. Ritz delayed release of grades, usually issued in the fall, to near the end of the year, blaming spring testing errors and re-scoring of some tests. But state board members accused Ritz of dragging her feet, asking legislative leaders to intervene to issue the grades.

After a public battle that included a lawsuit, the state board set Dec. 20 for the release date.

As work continued toward a new system throughout 2013, another major controversy erupted about the old system.

Integrity of the system is questioned

The release of emails written in 2012 by Bennett and his staff in July of 2013 led to complaints that Bennett tried to manipulate A to F grading. Emails showed high concern among Bennett’s team about the grade of a particular charter school and effort to find a way to improve its grade. Barraged with questions in the wake of the email revelations, Bennett resigned as education commissioner in Florida.

The emails were obtained by journalists using state public records law. They showed state officials were concerned that Christel House Academy, run by a former donor to Bennett’s campaign, might not receive an A. Christel House had a track record of A grades over several years and Bennett asked his staff why it appeared headed for a C under the new system. His lieutenants sprang into action, ultimately recommending tweaks to the grading formula that raised the school’s grade, along with those of a handful of other schools.

A consultants’ review of A to F grading later called Bennett’s changes to the formula “plausible,” but did not explore the motivations of Bennett or his staff for altering the system in a way that helped raise about a dozen schools’ grades. Supporters of Bennett and A to F grades said the report exonerated him and erased fears that grades were unfairly changed. But critics argued the entire incident showed how easily grades could be manipulated by small changes to the formula.

Pence, the state board and legislative leaders remain committed to creating an improved system that maintains A to F labels. In 2014, Indiana approved new standards and went to work to create new state exams that will provide the scores that serve as the foundation of A to F grades for schools.

Because of the transition, Ritz proposed Indiana consider a “pause” for some schools when it comes to A to F grade changes because she said test results after big changes to the exams in other states had resulted in huge drops in scores, also sinking school grades. After opposing the idea for months, Pence and Republican leaders reversed course and promised to protect teachers from the consequences of a drop in test scores.

-Updated December 2015