Deflating data

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

Update: State education officials walked back their tally of graduates with missing requirements after school leaders and superintendents alerted them to errors in the data. Here’s our story about the revised numbers, which Tennessee’s education department released more than two weeks after the State Board of Education’s report.

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 preventive 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. 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: This story 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.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.