Large numbers of Tennessee students not ready for college, new state data show
Newly released data detailing how ready Tennessee students are for college paint a grim picture of the state’s continued challenges in improving K-12 education.
The data, released to the state Senate Education Committee at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and obtained by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee, tally college readiness across the state in math and reading down to the high school level.
“Connecting it with local high schools clearly makes it more tangible,” said Mike Krause, Tennessee Higher Education Commission executive director.
It shows that while some public high schools prepare their students extraordinarily well for college, others have profound challenges and send many of their students on needing remedial education.
For instance, in Shelby County, Hillcrest High School, part of the Achievement School District, sent all of its 18 students who went to public colleges in Tennessee needing math remediation, the data show of the 2016-17 first-year college class.
Nashville’s Whites Creek High School sent out 78 percent, or 28 students, into the state’s colleges needing reading remediation. In Knoxville, Austin-East sent 80 percent of students, or 36, who enrolled in the state’s colleges needing math remediation.
The numbers also show contrasts in other parts of the state — in economically distressed, suburban and rural areas.
Students who need remedial education have a lower chance of graduating from college, according to state data. Students are deemed to need remedial efforts on either math or reading when they score 18 or below on the ACT subtest, according to the state.
A high number of students needing remediation
The data show that 46 percent of the roughly 33,000 high school graduates at Tennessee’s public colleges in 2016-17 needed remedial efforts in math.
And 33 percent needed remedial efforts in reading.
State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who requested the data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said that is too high.
“And that is only the folks that are college bound,” Lundberg said. “If you included every student, that number would be higher.”
The data do not include students who attend a private or out-of-state college or choose not to attend college.
A bombshell of information
The state’s improvements in K-12 education have masked some schools’ struggles, Lundberg said.
The information is a bombshell, he said, that makes him rethink the state’s K-12 improvements compared with the rest of the nation. Overall, Tennessee has been one of the fastest-improving states in national education rankings.
Lundberg believes every Tennessean should take notice of the new data.
“Taxpayers across the state and localities are putting money into the school system. They have paid to educate those children,” Lundberg said. “So when you get to graduate 12th grade you should have a low number (of kids needing remediation) or else someone has to pay again for something you should have done before.
“And if you really need remediation in math or reading in college, you are probably not going to finish,” he said.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Memphis, expressed concern when the information was presented to the Senate Education Committee that three high schools in Shelby County sent all of its students needing remediation in math.
“We do really need some help in Shelby County,” he said. “We have some major, major challenges, and we need to address that.”
The data come as the state is sending more students than ever to college free of tuition and fees through the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs. The state also has a goal of equipping 55 percent of Tennesseans with a degree or certificate by 2025.
Lundberg said if the state wants to hit its Drive to 55 goals, there needs to be a hard look at what is going on in education and the state’s teacher training programs.
“Everyone has to own up to this that we have an issue,” Lundberg said. “Every district and every school. This is the type of data that every principal wants to see — how do we stack up.”
Krause also said the data is a shared issue.
“We’re the ones that produce (many) of the teachers that are in high schools,” Krause said.
And Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman Chandler Hopper said the data affirms its commitment to align pathways from an early age to a career.
“We are in a position as a state to use this information to think about the expectations and supports we have for students across districts and schools and continue to push for a high-quality education for all students from day one,” she said.
Disparities at school, district level
Looking at the data by district and school level shows even more disparities across the state.
And smaller schools had higher swings in the percentage of students needing remediation, according to Emily House, the chief policy and strategy officer for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
In Metro Nashville Public Schools, the city has seen ACT scores rise.
“However, we know many students still struggle,” Nashville schools spokeswoman Dawn Rutledge said.
“That’s why the district has placed dedicated focus on early literacy and math instruction and regularly tracks that progress,” she said. “Preparing students for college and career starts in the earlier grades, and it is also critical in ensuring students are successful in high school.”
Blount County Schools sent 37 percent of its 654 students to public college needing math remediation. But in Alcoa High School, 38 students — about 50 percent of the students it sent to college in 2016-17 — needed math remediation.
In Sullivan County, there is an almost 20-point difference in college readiness in math between higher-performing Dobyns-Bennett High School and lower-performing Central High School.
Over 70 percent and 45 percent of La Vergne High School’s students in Rutherford County need remediation in math and reading, or 154 and 99 students, respectively. That is compared with 42.9 percent in math and 27.8 percent in reading for the entire 1,937 students the district sent to the state’s colleges.
Rutherford County Schools spokesman James Evans said the district’s focus is to ensure students are ready for college or career. He said the district advises students early and often about the importance of rigorous classes to prepare them for life.
“We work constantly to increase the number of programs and options available to students in high school and other grade levels,” he said.
In economically distressed counties such as Hardeman or Perry, the number of students needing remedial efforts is well above the state’s average.
Williamson County, which is the state’s most affluent county, has the lowest percentage of students who need remediation for math and the second lowest for reading. A total of 279 students at the district’s nine public high schools needed math remediation.
No Williamson County school had a higher remediation rate than 35 percent.
By contrast, in Hardeman County — which is one of 15 counties currently deemed distressed — 64 percent of graduates needed remediation in math, with 47 percent similarly needing help with reading. At Middleton High School, one of the county’s two high schools, 78 percent, or 25 students, needed math remediation.
College remediation efforts have improved
But as bad as the data is, Krause said, remediation has improved in recent years. Overall, he said colleges have increased their remediation rates by over 400 percent in recent years.
“It has significantly declined from over 70 percent to low 50 percent” during a five-year period, he said.
Tennessee Promise students also show a higher rate of graduation despite many coming in with higher remedial needs, he said.
After the hearing, Krause said the next step for higher education is to “have a conversation” with the state’s teacher colleges, to prepare future educators. For those already teaching, he said more training could help.
“I don’t believe that we have to wait until next year’s data,” Krause said. “I think we know there’s a cohort of juniors that are going to be taking an assessment in the next months — is there a way to get out there and really think through those competencies?” Krause said.[Read more at the Tennessean]