Definition of Plausible
- superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious <a plausible pretext>
- superficially pleasing or persuasive <a swindler… , then a quack, then a smooth, plausible gentleman — R. W. Emerson>
- appearing worthy of belief <the argument was both powerful and plausible>
Last week, a report commissioned by the Indiana state legislature provided more detail on just exactly what happened a year ago as then-Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett prepared to release the state’s first A-F school grades – one of many high-profile reforms Bennett and his staff championed. The emails uncovered a last-minute scramble to change grades for certain schools and, ultimately, led to Bennett’s resignation as schools’ chief in Florida. But many unanswered questions remained. Did last week’s report answer them?
Here’s what we knew before:
- Emails obtained by the Associated Press showed that the final grade for Christel House Academy and a dozen other schools with nontraditional configurations (e.g. grades 5-9, K-10) were changed internally prior to the public release of the grades. The emails showed Bennett and his staff were particularly concerned about an initial ‘C’ grade for Christel House, founded by a prominent political donor and regarded as a top-performing charter school. Christel House had recently expanded to offer high school, in addition to elementary and middle grades.
- After reading the emails and analyzing the data, I reported that the grading change was only possible once performance data from these schools’ high school grades were eliminated from the formula. And I had a problem with that. The changes were made thanks to a “loophole,” in secret and without a public explanation. This made it near impossible for parents and families to know that Christel House’s K-8 grades earned the ‘A’ grade, but its high school did not.
- Further reporting found that another 165 schools, including Christel House, benefitted from a second tweak to the formula: removing a cap on the number of bonus points schools could receive for high rates of student growth. This allowed elementary and middle schools with high growth in one subject to compensate for low performance in another subject area.
And here’s what the new report says: “In the end, Authors found that the two adjustments administered to determine Christel House Academy’s final grade were plausible and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances.”
This isn’t news. That’s because the question wasn’t whether the changes were applied consistently – dozens of schools benefitted from the two changes, and there was never any indication that this wasn’t the case. The question wasn’t even if the changes were plausible. Of course officials could make some reasonable-sounding explanation for increasing the emphasis on student growth in the grading formula, or for removing the high school data for some schools… just as officials could also make a reasonable-sounding explanation for limiting the emphasis on growth, or for using all available high school data for all schools. In fact, that’s exactly what officials did with schools that only serve grades 9 and 10 (they just didn’t apply the same plausible logic to schools serving grades 5-10).
In other words, just because Bennett’s decisions were plausible – “superficially fair and reasonable” – it doesn’t mean they were right or in the best interests of students and families. The decision to ignore these schools’ high school data in the A-F system is like telling parents their child is an honor roll student, but only after tossing out a failing grade in Spanish because it’s their first year taking the language. Sure, it’s a plausible argument, but is it the right call? That's debatable, and it's a debate that should have happened in public.
The larger takeaway here isn’t just about the plausibility of these changes. It's also the process by which they were made. Would we be having this conversation if Bennett and his staff had been open about altering the formula and removing the high school data or the growth caps from the beginning? Or at least once the emails were released?
School accountability systems cannot function without public trust. Anyone – from parents, to policy analysts, to reporters – should be able to determine how a school’s grade was calculated. Students can determine why they earned a B+ on a math test by looking at which questions they missed and how many points they lost for each, just as the public should be able to look at a school’s ‘B’ grade, understand how it was calculated, and note the school’s strengths and weaknesses. And if changes are made to the grading rubric or the weighting of components, they must be announced and explained publicly – not buried in Excel files or internal emails.
Predictably, friends of Bennett have been quick to forgive, just as his political foes were once quick to judge. But these black-and-white pronouncements overlook many of the valuable lessons that can be learned from the report – as the authors note, their work neither condemns, nor vindicates Bennett.
The report does confirm how the grading changes occurred. Moreover, it lays out several useful recommendations for Indiana’s A-F school accountability system, notably increasing the transparency of the decisionmaking process, improving capacity within the state education agency to handle the technical aspects of A-F development, and piloting school grades before full implementation. And as PoliticsK-12 reported, these lessons extend beyond Indiana to every state updating its accountability system under ESEA flexibility. Instead of judgment and vindication, let’s also talk about how these accountability systems can be improved. It’s time to focus on the process, not just the politics.