NASHVILLE — Sen. Andy Berke is calling on lawmakers to conduct a "thorough review" of a for-profit virtual school operating in a Northeast Tennessee school district, citing state student testing results he charges show "dismal" results.
Berke, D-Chattanooga, is a frequent critic of K12 Inc.'s Tennessee Virtual Academy, which in the 2011-12 school year opened its online school under contract with the Union County Public Schools system.
According to best estimates from K12, about 1,800 K-8 students from across the state signed up last school year to sit at their home computers and take courses online with support from K12 teachers. The company operates in states across the country.
In a letter Wednesday to Senate Education Committee Chairman Delores Gresham, Berke says state Education Department testing data for the 2011-12 school year show Tennessee Virtual Academy students "performed in the bottom 11 percent of schools statewide.
"As the [school] is advertising on television — and the state anticipates shifting millions of additional tax dollars to [the school] this school year — it is important that we examine K12 Inc.'s performance," wrote Berke, whose efforts to require an audit of K12's Tennessee school went nowhere in the Republican-controlled General Assembly last session.
Tax money and achievement
Berke said in an interview Thursday that "if we're going to use taxpayer dollars ... we should ask for real achievement. K12 doesn't give it to us."
Gresham, R-Somerville, was the primary Senate sponsor of the 2011 law authorizing local school systems to contract with for-profit online schools. She did not respond Thursday to a reporter's request to comment on Berke's criticisms.
Tennessee Virtual Academy's head, Josh Williams, said in an email that 2011-12 was the school's first year of operation, suggesting it was unfair to judge results solely on that basis.
"All students were in their first year and most transferred from another district in the state," he said. "The modality for learning and the school itself were new to every student."
In his letter, Berke cites information he received from state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on the Tennessee Virtual Academy's performance.
Huffman provided Berke with the school's results from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program achievement tests as well as the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.
TVAAS measures growth or gains in student learning by a school system, individual school and by teacher. Both TCAP and TVAAS are key measures in how the state judges public schools' performance.
Virtual Academy students' results on TCAP scores "raise deep concerns over [K12] operations in Tennessee," Berke said, citing a "dismal" 16.4 percent of the school's students scored as proficient or advanced on TCAP's math section.
In reading, the school did better with 39.3 percent of students rated as proficient or advanced.
But Berke said his primary concern are the TVASS measurements of students gains at the online school.
The Tennessee Virtual Academy scored the lowest score -- a 1 -- on the state's five-point assessment, he said, a figure confirmed in a copy of Huffman's letter to the senator.
A 1 rating characterizes a school as "significantly below expectations," Berke said.
"Only 11 percent of our schools scored in the lowest category," the lawmaker said and charged the Tennessee Virtual Academy "dramatically declined students' growth compared to the state" in its first year of operations.
Tennessee Virtual Academy's head, Williams, said the school views last year's state proficiency results "as baseline scores for first year students, and not an indicator of long term performance for our school."
Williams also noted that K12 uses the private Scantron Performance Series to "measure student academic gains during the school year" from fall through spring.
"The 2011-12 results showed that TNVA students met or exceeded those of the Scantron national norm group in all grade levels and subjects tested," Williams said.
Moreover, Williams added, "our teachers and staff have implemented many new academic initiatives that we believe will serve the unique and individual academic needs of students, and improve outcomes for the 2012-13 school year."
Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier did not provide answers to a series of questions posed by the Times Free Press by the newspaper's deadline.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...