INDIANAPOLIS | Gov. Mike Pence makes it sound like the simplest thing in the world: "We grade our kids every day in the classroom; we can grade our schools every year."
But for the third year in a row, state education officials are struggling to decide how to grade schools. The latest revamped grading model is set to be presented to the State Board of Education Friday.
A key problem is that unlike a student, whose achievement and improvement can be measured using standardized tests, for many Hoosiers a school is much more than the sum of its students' test results and all that it does can't be boiled down to a single letter.
In addition to classroom instruction, Indiana schools feed hundreds of thousands of children up to two meals a day, provide recreation, serve as a refuge from dangerous homes and streets and embody the hopes of the communities that paid to build them.
None of those items is reflected in the current school grading system, nor are they included in the model proposed last week by the committee tasked with creating a better one.
How did we get here?
Indiana adopted school accountability measurements in 1999. Public Law 221, co-sponsored by state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, compelled local school leaders to focus on improvement by having the State Board of Education rate schools based primarily on ISTEP standardized test scores.
Schools were designated using the terms Exemplary, Commendable, Academic Progress, Academic Watch and Academic Probation. After six years on probation, the state board could shut a school down or turn it over to a private operator.
State Superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican elected in 2008, led a successful 2011 effort to substitute letter grades for the descriptive ratings.
He claimed parents could better understand school quality by using an A-F scale. Letter grades also were intended to make it easier to compare public schools with charter schools and private schools in a "choice" era where Hoosier students can attend any school nearly free of charge.
That same year, however, the Bennett-led State Board of Education altered how schools were graded.
The new system didn't rate schools on how their students performed on ISTEP, but calculated grades based on a complicated measurement of how well their students should have performed compared to similar students at other schools.
Schools also could improve their grades with bonus points and the entire system was open to manipulation, which Bennett allegedly used to boost the grade of a favored charter school.
Prior to Bennett's 2012 election defeat by Democrat Glenda Ritz he even spoke of expanding state grading to school districts and potentially subjecting multiple high achieving schools to takeover if their district didn't measure up.
Where are we headed?
Ritz campaigned against the current A-F grading system and won in part due to parents, teachers and community leaders being fed up with school grades that didn't provide logical paths for schools to improve.
"I believe in a strong accountability system that is accurate, transparent and drives school improvement," Ritz said.
Last week, the Ritz-led Accountability System Review Panel approved a grading system that rates schools on how well their students scored on standardized tests and how much those students improved compared to their prior year scores, along with measures of college- and career-readiness and graduation rates.
It remains to be seen whether the State Board of Education will adopt this recommended grading system, or, given its poisonous relationship with Ritz, reject it out of spite.
Daniel Elsener, Ritz's primary antagonist on the board, already has said he's inclined to leave the Bennett-era grading system in place, despite a legislative mandate that it be junked.
House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said in the wake of the Bennett grade-changing scandal and the ongoing battles between Ritz and the State Board of Education, the simplest thing of all would be for Indiana to stop trying to label schools using A-F grades.
"People will never fully trust grades doled out by politicians for political purposes," Pelath said. "The grades are for rewarding friends and punishing the weak."