Tennessee’s on-time high school graduation rate is consistently outpacing the rest of the nation and moving steadily toward achieving a national goal of 90 percent by 2020, according to a recent national report.

In fact, in an analysis that breaks down graduation rates by income, race and disability, Tennessee leads the South in most every category, according to the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report released last week by several organizations, including an advocacy group backed by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

More good news: In order to reach a 90 percent graduation rate, Tennessee’s Class of 2020 will need only 2,595 more graduates than its Class of 2013, the report says. “That’s just a basketball arena full of students,” says Jennifer DePaoli, the report’s co-author.

The challenge: Those potential graduates are students most in need of interventions in order to earn their diploma — for instance, students from low-income families or who have disabilities.

“It will take hard work to help those 2,500-plus students, but it’s completely doable. It’s available with the right interventions, the right support,” said DePaoli, senior education advisor for Civic Enterprises, a public policy strategy firm based in Washington, D.C.

The report is based on 2013 data available from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education. It was the sixth update by the Grad Nation campaign and was developed as a joint project of Civic Enterprises, America’s Promise Alliance, Everyone Graduates Center and the Alliance for an Excellent Education.

The nation set a record-high graduation rate of 81 percent in 2013, while Tennessee’s was almost 5 points higher at 86 percent. Both are on track to reach 90 percent by 2020, the report said.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, touring schools in Memphis earlier this week, said the data is encouraging, “especially for economically disadvantaged students” in the state. In Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of struggling schools, more than 80 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Tennessee’s graduation rate for low-income students was almost 81 percent, compared with the nation’s rate of just more than 73 percent. In the South, the state trailed Kentucky, which the report said “stands out as a beacon” in closing the opportunity gap.

While southern states generally bring down the national rate, Kentucky and Tennessee are the exception, according to DePaoli.

“Tennessee is doing something right,” she said. “It has shown consistent gains over the past few years, so these are real numbers. The state has also done well with subgroups that traditionally haven’t done well. The big question is: What will it take to put the focus on those subgroups and give that extra push?”

Nationally, one reason for academic improvements among students of color is the closure since 2002 of 800 low-performing schools referred to “dropout factories” because of their low graduation rates, the report said.

To keep the graduation rate on track, the authors recommend eradicating zero-tolerance discipline policies, since students who are expelled or suspended become far less likely to graduate on time. The number of students suspended or expelled from school has increased by 40 percent over the last four decades, the report says, usually for non-violent crimes such as truancy, dress code violations or acting out in class. Students impacted increasingly have been students of color or special education students.

The authors also recommend making state funding more equitable so that low-income students have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers. About 51 percent of the nation’s public school students come from low-income families.

One significant challenge in Tennessee will be providing interventions for students with disabilities, DePaoli said. The state’s graduation gap stands at almost 22 percent between students with disabilities and those without. “If you ask different experts, 85 to 90 percent of special education students should be able to graduate on time with a standard diploma if they have the right support and accommodation,” she said.

She also noted that, for the most part, Tennessee’s largest school districts (those with more than 15,000 students) are “really pulling their weight.”

Wilson County Schools led the pack at 95 percent, followed by Montgomery and Williamson counties with 94 percent each, and Rutherford County Schools at 92 percent. Others were Sumner County, 89 percent; Knox and the former Shelby County district, 88 percent; Hamilton County, 85 percent; and Davidson County, 77 percent. The former Memphis City Schools, which merged with Shelby County Schools in 2013, had one of the lowest graduation rates, 68 percent.

“With the merger of Memphis and Shelby County Schools [and the subsequent splintering off of six suburban school districts], it will be interesting to see how that affects the overall rate,” DePaoli said. “Will it improve when you merge these two different worlds together?”

See the report’s executive summary here.

Contact Marta W. Aldrich at maldrich@chalkbeat.org

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