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August 28, 2013

CAM SAVAGE: What if Bennett was right?

Letter-grade change came about during system trials.

What if Tony Ben-nett was right and the Associated Press got it wrong? Time, and a few investi-gations, some credible and some not, hopefully will tell the full story, but you may start preparing yourself for the possibility.

Reading the emails of public officials is great fun, or so it seems, considering the reaction from Tom LoBianco’s Associated Press story about the 2012 development of the Indiana Department of Education’s A-F grading system under former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

LoBianco based his story on a very small number of emails between Bennett and his staff, of which I was a part in 2009 and early 2010. (Full disclosure: LoBianco apparently requested my emails, too. But we’ll get to his records requests in a minute.)

Few have bothered to question the completeness of a story based on a handful of emails, out of what must be tens of thousands.

One prominent Indiana columnist I know and respect even wrote that it was “disappointing to see some Republicans last week fiercely defending Bennett’s actions,” so confident was he in the completeness and accuracy of one story, based entirely on quoting a few select emails that were part of a project and system developed over the course of months, if not years.

A narrow selection of emails might give columnists and reporters confidence to condemn, but what they can’t give you is context. Context is more important.

If you read the AP story, you are led to believe Bennett changed the letter grade a school was supposed to receive from a “C” to an “A” because the school’s founder is a prominent donor to Republicans.

Missing from this absurd, and false, contention is the fact that the emails came during the initial creation of the A-F grading system. What difference does that make? During this time, the Department of Education was working with schools to ensure the grading system was fair and accurate. Moreover, the department had provided schools with preliminary letter grades and asked schools to help identify problems with the new system.

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