Two Indianapolis Public Schools might never have been taken over by the state if then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett had offered the district the same flexibility he granted a year later to the Christel House Academy charter school.
The issue was similar in both cases. Christel House had recently added ninth and 10th grades, and IPS' Howe and Arlington had added middle school grades. The students who filled those seats posted poor enough scores to drag down the schools' overall ratings.
In the case of Christel House, emails unearthed by The Associated Press show Bennett's staff sprung into action in 2012 when it appeared scores from the recently added grades could sink the highly regarded school's rating from an A to a C. Ultimately, the high school scores were excluded and the school's grade remained an A.
But in 2011, after IPS' then-Superintendent Eugene White demanded Bennett consider the test scores of high school students separately from those of middle school students so the high schools could avoid state takeover, Bennett was unmoved.
Neither Bennett, a Republican champion of charter schools who is now Florida's education commissioner, nor White, who left IPS this year, could be reached for comment for this story. But one IPS School Board member expressed concern about potential unequal treatment.
"Wow," said board member Michael Brown after he was briefed on the accommodations made for Christel House. "It looks like everyone wasn't playing by the same rules."
The episode is emblematic of broad concerns about Bennett's conduct that have teachers unions demanding an investigation of the A-to-F rating system.
"It's time to call the Tony Bennett letter-grading scandal exactly what it is - cheating," the Indiana State Teachers Association said in a statement Wednesday. "There are no excuses for the actions taken by Bennett and his staff, as revealed in the string of emails, other than favoritism, cronyism, self-interest and hubris - none of which has a place in public school policymaking."
Indiana's State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who last year defeated Bennett in his re-election bid, has promised to review the 2012 ratings for all schools to make certain they receive grades they earned.
"This ensures that all Hoosiers can know exactly how their school is truly performing and what they need to do to improve," Ritz said in a statement.
White was angry in 2011 when seven IPS schools were facing potential state takeover after six consecutive years of F ratings.
He held a news conference that July to argue some of the schools in question - including Arlington and Howe high schools - actually had made enough gains in Grades 9 to 12 to earn at least a D had their scores not been intermingled with the newly arrived middle school students.
At the time, White called Bennett's approach "discrimination."
"I don't believe anyone would look at this and say that it was fair," White said.
But Bennett was dismissive in response.
"We could all day try to find a way of making the figures work," Bennett said at the time. "But the calculations being used and addressed today are the calculations we have used since 1999."
The education department had been working for most of that year to create a new grading method, one that added new measures of test-score growth and the college and career readiness of high school graduates. The emails began after Bennett learned the latest run of calculations had resulted in a C for Christel House.
"Anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all our accountability work," Bennett wrote to his chief of staff on Sept. 12, asking for action.
Christel House, one of Indiana's oldest and most successful charter schools, had earned A's the prior four years in a row. Its test scores rival some suburban schools despite serving a severely disadvantaged student population with 89 percent of students poor enough to receive free or reduced price lunch and 23 percent of students learning English as a second language.
There had been a fierce, yearlong debate about the new grading system that had Bennett in conflict with many of his key supporters, including school-choice supporters.
David Harris, president of Indianapolis-based school reform group The Mind Trust, said concerns were widespread after initial test runs of the system showed prestigious private schools like Park Tudor and the Oaks Academy also did not get A's initially.
"My sense of all of that is not that they were trying to necessarily create special loopholes as much as they were trying to find a way to make the grading system fit with what (Bennett) knew reality to be," he said.
But "loophole" was the very term used by Will Krebs, Bennett's then-director of policy and research, when he came into the email conversation and reviewed Christel House's data.
It was Krebs who saved the day for Bennett's crew. Poring over the department's report card rules, Krebs found that a grade for combined schools - those with high school and lower grades - required a calculation of four factors at the high school level - test scores for Algebra 1 and English 10 along with graduation rate and a new measure of "college and career readiness."
Christel House, he observed, served just grades K to 10, as it was adding a grade a year until it grew to K to 12. There was not enough data to calculate a graduation rate or the college and career readiness figure. The school's grade was being calculated on just two of the four measures.
That presented two options, he said, for recalculating the school's grade - excluding the high school data entirely or redefining Christel House as two separate schools, an elementary and a high school, so the elementary school would remain an A.
"This is a loophole," Krebs wrote in an email to accountability chief Jon Gubera. "Christel House doesn't have four weighted (high school) scores so you can't calculate the combined school grade with this methodology."
Ultimately, Gubera went with Krebs' first option. The new calculation ignored the high school data - in Krebs' words, they gave Christel House the equivalent of an "incomplete" for its high school results.
Reached Wednesday at his new post in Bennett's Florida education department, Krebs said he was not searching for a loophole in the sense of a special exemption just for Christel House. When his interpretation was applied, it ultimately affected 12 schools that had some high school grades but no seniors.
"I meant that is a hole in the rule, a topic that is not covered in the rule," he said. "You can write a 100-page rule, but when you're dealing with education you are never going to cover every situation."
On this issue, there was another school that raised concern in the email discussion, but not because Bennett's team felt it deserved an A.
In an exchange of emails, Krebs and assistant state Superintendent Dale Chu discussed the impact the Christel House-driven change might have on IPS' John Marshall High School. In 2012, Marshall was the only school in the state threatened with state takeover. An F on its report card that year would trigger state intervention.
Chu wondered in an email if John Marshall, a one-time middle school that added high school grades, was listed in state records as one school or two. If it were two separate schools, then the change for Christel House couldn't change Marshall's grade.
Marshall, which ultimately did receive an F, avoided state takeover when it was assigned a lead partner.
White made arguments in 2011 in defense of combined schools that sound much the same as the case Krebs made for Christel House.
The schools, White said at the time, "should have been off probation," because high school scores were making solid gains but were weighed down by middle school students who had only been on campus a year or two.
"The calculation incorporated seventh- and eighth-grade ISTEP scores," White said at a news conference. "That's totally unfair."
Even after two years, the state owes IPS some answers, said Brown, the IPS board member.
"I think they need to take a look at it," he said. "If the system was skewed to benefit Christel House Academy, then was it skewed to hurt IPS? That concerns me more than anything else."
Indianapolis Star, Scott Elliott