NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Are leaders of a for-profit public school trying to hide the fact their students are failing?
That's the question that some are asking tonight as a result of an email uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
At the center of the controversy is the Tennessee Virtual Academy -- a for-profit, online public school that Republican lawmakers touted as a way to improve education in Tennessee. Two years ago, state lawmakers voted to let K12 Inc. open the school, using millions of taxpayer dollars.
But, now, those lawmakers are concerned about standardized test results that put it among the worst schools in the state.
In fact, the email suggests that even school leaders are becoming increasingly concerned by how their students' grades may look to parents and the public.
"That is not something I would ever be told in my school -- I mean, it's just not acceptable," said state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who is also a career teacher. "Quite honestly, I was horrified."
The email -- labeled "important -- was written in December by the Tennessee Virtual Academy's vice principal to middle school teachers.
"After ... looking at so many failing grades, we need to make some changes before the holidays," the email begins.
Among the changes: Each teacher "needs to take out the October and September progress [reports]; delete it so that all that is showing is November progress."
"Does it talk about we need to make changes in curriculum? Does it talk about we need to make changes in our teaching strategy? No," Rep. Johnson observed. "Those changes we need to make are deleting grades from the computer system."
"And that's cheating in your mind?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"In my mind, sure. I mean, yes."
The email adds, "This cannot be late!"
"To come in and say 'everybody who made failing grades the first two months, we need to delete those grades,' to me that's a huge issue," Johnson added.
And the suggestions from K12 leaders don't end there.
In traditional classrooms, if students score a 60 on one test and a 90 on a second test, they're stuck with a 75 average. But the email suggests that teachers erase the bad grades, leaving students with just the good grades.
The email continues, "If you have given an assignment and most of your students failed that assignment, then you need to take that grade out."
"This doesn't say give them a second chance," we noted.
"No, it does not," the lawmaker agreed. "It just says take that out. To me, this appears like it's grade fixing."
K12 officials refused to sit down to answer our questions, but the Tennessee Virtual Academy's principal said in an email that the goal was to "more accurately recognize students' current progress."
"By going back into our school's electronic grading system and recording students' most recent progress score (instead of taking the average throughout the semester) we could more accurately recognize students' current progress in their individualized learning program," principal Josh Williams said in the statement.
"This also helped differentiate those and identify those who needed instructional intervention and remediation."
Williams compared K12's grade deletions to the "common practice in traditional schools" of allowing "make-up tests, alternative assessments and extra credit opportunities."
Yet, the internal email also suggests that Virtual Academy teachers had already attempted those sorts of efforts to boost student grades.
"In early December, all teachers gave their students an opportunity to improve their grades by giving additional assignments," it says.
"Yet, we are still seeing failing grades."
As to K12's explanation, Mitchell Johnson, interim director of the Tennessee Education Association, questioned how deleting data helps K12 to better understand students' needs.
"They're probably changing the grades to make themselves look better," he speculated.
It's a practice that the TEA official suggested would not sit well with privatization advocates if they saw a "delete it" email from a traditional public school.
"I think that they would be incensed, and I'm hoping that the reformers will be as incensed about what has happened here -- as they would be if it had happened within a public school setting," he added.
In the email, teachers were also told that their main focus is on reading and math -- and that they are not as concerned about students making F's in history and science.
But the principal of the Tennessee Virtual Academy noted that, ultimately, the school's success or failure will be judged based on the standardized tests that students take at the end of the year -- not on individual grades.
Because of concerns about the Tennessee Virtual Academy's performance, Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed legislation that would cap the number of students who could enroll at 5,000. It's at about 3,200 right now.
There is also a bill up in a House subcommittee Tuesday that would essentially shut it down.