Deflating data

One in three Tennessee graduates shouldn’t have received high school diploma, state says

Tennessee has been praised nationally for its high graduation rate while also maintaining rigorous graduation requirements for high school.

But it turns out, that’s not entirely true.

A third of Tennessee students are receiving diplomas without meeting the state’s requirements, according to a new report by the State Department of Education.

During this week’s State Board of Education meeting, department leaders vowed to address the lapse.

“This couldn’t happen again,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday. “We’ve got some pretty drastic measures that we’re taking.”

The findings come as the state digs deeper to understand why Tennessee high school graduates struggle to transition to jobs or further education. 

“This could explain some of our postsecondary success issues if kids are graduating without actually meeting graduation requirements,” said board member Wendy Tucker. “The requirements don’t mean much if kids don’t have to meet them.”

Students most often skipped out on requirements for required government and foreign language classes. White and minority students missed credits at similar rates, according to Chief Research Officer Nate Schwartz. It’s not clear how long the problem has persisted.

“This is the first year we’ve looked; this is the first year we’ve found it,” Schwartz said.

Reasons for missed credits included a lack of teachers in some subject areas, especially foreign language; data entry errors; and a dearth of school counselors.

The findings were included in the department’s “Seamless Pathways” report, released this week and detailing recommendations for preparing high school students for success after graduation. As part of that push, Gov. Bill Haslam told business and education leaders on Thursday that the state must step up its game in guiding high school students to college and careers.

“The finding that one-third of students are not taking the required core courses indicates a bigger issue — that students are not receiving sufficient guidance and attention when selecting their courses,” the report reads.  

Tennessee’s rigorous graduation requirements were set in 2009-10 as part of the Tennessee Diploma Project. To graduate from high school, students must earn at least 22 credits, including four courses in English and math, three in science, four in social studies, and two in foreign language.

Education officials aren’t interested in solving the problem by easing up on graduation requirements.

“I think this question about how we get our students to actually meet the requirements we set before they graduate is a hugely important one,” Schwartz said. “The reason it matters is because we think our requirements actually set our students on a path for (success).”

McQueen said preventative measures include flagging missed credits to local districts while there’s still time for students to earn them.

The findings deflate a narrative around Tennessee’s enforcement of rigorous graduation requirements, for the state was recognized in a national report this fall from Achieve, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization focusing on education reform.

“What’s impressive about Tennessee, is not only are you graduating kids who are more prepared (for college and career) than other states, you’re graduating many more kids than the national average,” Achieve chief operating officer Sandy Boyd said in November. “It shows that it can be done.”

Clarification, Jan. 31, 2017: The second-to-last paragraph of this has been clarified to reflect that the State Department of Education’s findings raise questions about the enforcement of Tennessee’s graduation standards, not the standards themselves.

Upon further review

McQueen defends graduation statistic, acknowledges missteps in communication

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen is commissioner of education in Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that more Tennessee high school graduates are fulfilling the state’s requirements than originally thought by her department.

In a memo to school superintendents, she said only 22 percent of recent graduates received their diplomas without completing the requirements. Last month, a state report put that number at 33 percent.

But she defended the original statistic, saying it reflected data available at the time.

“We know many of you have received questions from your local community about your graduates, and we understand the graduation requirement statistic has led to misunderstandings and wrong conclusions,” she wrote. “We recognize the report did not do enough to convey the extent to which districts and schools have been and are working to meet state policy on graduation requirements.”

The memo was signed by both McQueen and Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents. Local district superintendents had asked the State Department of Education to review the startling statistic, initially released in a department report on the state’s high schools.

McQueen emphasized that no wrongdoing led to so many students missing credits. Instead, they came about from districts using state-sanctioned waivers or allowing students to substitute courses for some requirements, she said.

The commissioner also released guidance related to course data entry in an effort to minimize errors in the future.

“I know your concern on this statistic is rooted in your deep desire to ensure that every student is equipped to be successful after they leave our K-12 system, and we want to do everything we can to both support you in that mission and to provide you with data that will help you further understand how students are doing,” she wrote.

Read the full memo here:

Looking closer

That stunning statistic about a third of Tennessee graduates not meeting requirements? It’s not true

When Chad Moorehead saw that Tennessee’s education department had concluded that a third of graduates received a diploma without meeting the state’s requirements, his first instinct was to find out how many of his own students had fallen through the cracks.

“We’re so small,” said Moorehead, superintendent of Moore County Schools in Middle Tennessee. “We usually have a pretty good handle on what our kids are doing. If we’re missing something in our one high school, I want to know what it is and how to fix it.”

He quickly got an answer from the state: Only 62 percent of recent graduates in Moore County had actually met requirements.

That didn’t seem accurate to Moorehead, so he went through all of his students’ transcripts by hand. He couldn’t find a single one who had gotten an undeserved diploma.

Department officials said he was right. They had counted students who took math and English at a local community college as not having taken those courses at all.

Moorehead wasn’t the only superintendent with questions. State officials quickly started examining graduation data — and reached a new conclusion.

While state officials continue to check districts’ data, it appears that about a third of what looked like missing requirements were in fact data errors. For the remainder, students had actually been allowed to graduate without taking required courses.

That means that only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates had not met requirements, not the 33 percent originally identified by the state.

“It’s better than we thought,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “It’s helping us move forward with more clarity.”

McQueen said the state is taking several steps. At the top of the list, she said, is working with the companies that manage student information to improve data entry.

But she said officials also would work with districts to make sure all students fulfill requirements. Sometimes, graduates had been improperly allowed to substitute courses for requirements. In other cases, waivers that were originally designed for students pursuing career training instead went to students who should not have been eligible, she said.

“Waivers are not meant to be used all of the time,” McQueen said.

She said she believes confusion, not wrongdoing, led to some districts overdoing course substitutions and waivers.

“These are misunderstandings that add up,” she said.

The revised report is likely to restore damaged confidence in Tennessee’s much-touted graduation rate gains. But they raise new questions about how the department is managing crucial information about the success of its schools.

“The state department did this research, they got this alarming statistic,” Moorehead said. “Why didn’t they reach out to districts to check the data and start to solve the problem before announcing it to the world?”

Correction, February 16, 2017: This version corrects that, based on current information, only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates did not meet requirements. In a previous version, Commissioner McQueen misspoke regarding the percentage of missing requirements attributed to data errors.