Ritz confirms school grading 'manipulation' 

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An internal Department of Education investigation has confirmed that former agency officials manipulated the data used to determine A-F grades for Indiana schools last year.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said Wednesday that "it is premature to discuss" her staff's specific findings because other investigations of the issue are ongoing.

But Ritz said she planned to meet Wednesday afternoon with legislative leaders to discuss a "side-by-side analysis of the data calculations" used for the grades.

The announcement comes less than a week after former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett resigned from a similar post in Florida following accusations that he rigged Indiana's A-F grading system to help Christel House Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis that he had held up as an example of excellence.

Bennett has vehemently denied wrongdoing and insisted that he was not focusing on one school. He said the changes were meant to better reflect grades for institutions that served elementary, middle and high school students in one school.

But emails uncovered by The Associated Press discuss only Christel House, which was to receive a C under the original grading formula, due largely to poor 10th grade algebra scores. Changes made by Bennett's office in the days before the scores were released raised that grade to an A.

The AP quoted a Bennett email to his then-chief of staff Heather Neal saying that, "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."

Ritz said in a statement on Wednesday that, "In light of recent developments, the department began a probe into the A-F data system." "Upon our preliminary examination, the department has verified that there was manipulation of calculation categories and the department has also determined that there are broader issues that need to be examined," she said.

Bennett has asked the Indiana inspector general to look into the accusations against him.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, last week appointed leaders for an independent task force to review the A-F grading system.

And earlier this year, lawmakers ordered the Board of Education to come up with a new formula for the grading system.

Ritz said on Wednesday that new accountability system will be in place for the 2014-2015 school year. In the mean time, though, the education department and the state board must come up with a way to calculate grades for the just-completed school year.

She called that "troublesome."

"Speaking as the chair of the board, the process must wait until the 2011-2012 data examination is complete," she said.

That includes ISTEP scores, which have not yet been distributed to schools and parents. State education officials must also decide whether to use the existing A-F formula or make changes.

Meanwhile, she said the General Assembly charged the board of education with revamping the grading criteria to create a "fair, transparent and credible system to placed schools in categories for school improvement, utilizing academic achievement and individual student growth data."

"In order to build confidence in a new system, the process will need to involve experts, key constituencies, members of the department of education, members of the board, and, of course, members of the legislature," she said. "The department has already begun this process." But Ritz said she still has questions about what work must be completed under the new law by a Nov. 15 deadline. She planned to ask for clarification from Long and Bosma.

"Because the stakes of this system are so high for our educators, our schools, our communities and our students, we all want to be sure that proper time is afforded for the process," she said.

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