Report on black students finds ‘jaw-dropping’ gap between graduation rate and college readiness in Tennessee

A new report on opportunities for the nation’s African-American students lists Tennessee among the top five states for graduating its black students, but among the bottom five states for equipping them to be college-ready.

Seventy-eight percent of the state’s black students graduated from high school in 2013, but only 4 percent tested as college-ready in all four ACT-tested subjects — a jarring gap included in the report released Thursday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“It’s not surprising to see some gap, but to see this size of a gap is jaw-dropping,” said lead researcher Michael McShane in an interview on Wednesday.

“This is something that I hope is kind of a wake-up call. If the student successfully graduates from high school, that’s a school giving him a signal that they have what they need in order to succeed. Then they show up in college completely unprepared. The psychological toll on them is terrible,” he said.

McShane added that Tennessee is not alone in this discrepancy and noted that the study does not reflect the number of students who graduate high school and choose not to enroll in college.

Like most other Southern states, Tennessee has a significant number of black students in its K-12 public education system — more than 229,000, or 23 percent of the state’s student population, in 2013-14.

<a href=”” target=”_blank”>The report</a> outlines state-by-state performance for African-American students measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams, in addition to state and college remediation statistics.

Nationwide, the study shows some improvement in the education and college-readiness of the nation’s African-American students since the 1990s, but also identifies startling areas of underachievement among all sub-groups of students. When it comes to critical areas like reading and math proficiency and college readiness, black students are disproportionately affected by shortcomings in the education system, according to the researchers.

<a href=”” target=”_blank”>Tennessee’s reading proficiency scores</a> have been generally stagnant for students of any color, prompting comprehensive reading initiatives launched this year at both the <a href=”” target=”_blank”>state level</a> and in local districts such as <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Shelby County Schools</a>, the state’s largest school system, in Memphis. For the state’s black students, the 2015 NAEP exam showed that 16 percent scored as proficient in the fourth grade and 15 percent in the eighth grade.

“I think a lot of research around reading would tell us that reading success is predicated on having content knowledge, so that students would know what they’re reading,” said McShane, adding that not understanding content often creates a vicious cycle for reading proficiency. “Historically we’ve had huge gains over time, but in reading it’s much harder to push the needle.”

For math, only 20 percent of Tennessee’s African-American fourth-graders were found to be proficient, plummeting to 9 percent by the eighth grade.

Tennessee’s decrease in math and reading scores in the transition from elementary to middle school is reflective of national trends, and McShane hopes the data informs policymakers considering future investments in public education.

“So much effort has been focused on elementary schools, and I think lots of things have not trickled up yet,” said McShane, offering one possible explanation for why younger students are outscoring older students. “It will be interesting to see what those eighth-grade numbers look like two or three years from now.”

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, responding to the report, said that preparing all students, including groups that have been underserved in the past, is a critical part of <a href=”” target=”_blank”>the state’s five-year strategic education plan</a> announced in October and dubbed Tennessee Succeeds.

“We know that over two-thirds of the state’s nearly 1 million students fall into a category that has been historically underserved, and we know that too few of these students are on track to be college and career ready,” McQueen said in a statement. “As part of the department’s strategic plan, … we are working to ensure that historically underserved students have access to great classroom teachers and quality, personalized interventions.”


Editor’s note: This story updates a previous version to correct the number of Tennessee’s African-American student population in the sixth paragraph.