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Thursday, Oct 30, 2014
Editorials

Bennett's troubling test score

Published:

Democrats and teachers' unions are gleeful about the revelation that Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, while overseeing schools in Indiana, changed the grade of a charter school owned by a political supporter.

The narrative provided in an Associated Press investigation is suspicious, and merits scrutiny. Bennett changed the school's grade from a "C" to an "A."

But Bennett's explanation that the Christel House Academy was unfairly penalized for not having a senior class should not be dismissed out of hand.

In Florida this year, he recommended the Board of Education comply with school superintendents' requests to not drop schools more than one grade as they adjusted to tougher test standards.

It was a reasonable request aimed at helping schools make the transition to the new test without overreacting. The board, by a 4-3 vote, complied.

It is possible Bennett was trying to ensure fairness in Indiana, though the fact that the school was owned by an influential Republican donor who had given his campaign more than $100,000 does not look good. (Bennett lost his campaign to be re-elected as Indiana school superintendent before being hired to head Florida schools.)

Bennett says he was familiar with the charter school's performance and knew something was amiss.

He told reporters:

"This was not a school that was a borderline 'D' or 'F' school. This was a school that was an unquestionable high performer who said 'Hold on; this doesn't look right.' They had a track record for that, and I respected that. There's no smoking gun there."

We hope that is so and further investigation reveals no conflict.

The episode, at best, does underscore the dangers of overemphasizing student tests. We've supported the school accountability effort initiated by former by Gov. Jeb Bush from the start.

It's clearly improved Florida schools. But the movement can be obsessed with standardized tests, elevating them from an evaluation tool to the only thing that matters in Florida's public education system.

There also has been a tendency among accountability champions to criticize public schools while acting as if charter schools can do no wrong. This incident will make it difficult for Bennett to win public school teachers' trust.

If it can be shown that Bennett did indeed change a school's grade to benefit a political supporter, he should be sent packing.

If this was instead a matter of Bennett recognizing the limits of tests and the need to be judicious when grading schools, the experience may usefully inform his Florida tenure.

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