The Next Step: Students Graduate, But Are Not Ready
By Tara Scarlett
A shorter version of this piece originally ran in the Tennessean. https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2019/04/26/nashville-students-graduating-high-school-unprepared/3554911002/
Next month, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) will celebrate another graduating class with pomp and circumstance. They will bestow upon our high school seniors a diploma, a mutually understood signal that these students are ready to forge ahead to college or the workforce.
In reality, most of them are not.
The 2017-2018 Tennessee Department of Education report card shows that 80% of our students graduated high school on time. However, this same report also shows that 3 out of 4 MNPS students did not score a 21 or higher on the ACT, which is the state’s marker for– and a widely accepted indicator of– college and career readiness.
The situation becomes even more dire when we realize that the state assessment indicates 89% of our high school students are not proficient in grade level math; and 81% are not proficient in grade level English Language Arts.
These averages only scratch the surface. When we dive deeper into the data on specific MNPS high schools, as the Scarlett Family Foundation has done, we see rates of chronic absenteeism (students missing more than 10 days) as high as 30, 40, even 47 percent. We see that almost every student zoned for Whites Creek High will attend a priority school (a school measuring in the bottom 5 percent statewide for student growth) for every year of their education. And we find that in eight out of the twelve traditional MNPS high schools, the average ACT score is below 18.
These numbers demand a city-wide conversation.
Whether that conversation takes place between a student and a teacher, teacher and a principal, a teacher and a parent, or a parent and their child, the data we have available to us can start a transformative discussion on what is needed to support every child’s education.
At the Scarlett Family Foundation, the heart of our work is a four-year college scholarship awarded annually to students who graduate from a high school in Middle Tennessee and will major in Business or a STEM field. The practice of reading these applications year after year gives us a deeper understanding of who our Middle Tennessee students are.
This year, we were tasked with selecting finalists from a pool of almost 2,000 applicants. This required hours of careful— and sometimes painful— consideration.
Many of these students blow us away with their smarts, drive, passion, and dedication to the community. But far too often, we see applicants at the top of their class, earning GPAs of 4.0 or even higher, with ACT scores that are several points below a college or career-ready score of 21. How is this possible?
In the essay section, applicants’ responses are often riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and lack basic coherence, structure, and message. It is unlikely that these students will be able to write at the level expected in an institution of higher education or in a workplace.
Yet, every May, MNPS says to our students: you are ready for the world. Take it on! Make things happen! And year after year, MNPS hand over a new round of diplomas, even as our community is confronted with data that tells us only 25% of these students are actually ready for the next step. We tell our students they are prepared for post-grad success while simultaneously ignoring the warning signs we can see clearly in front of us.
Who does this willful ignorance serve? The reality is that the other 75% of MNPS students will likely struggle to find and keep a job that pays a living wage, or will spend their first year at a college or university in remedial courses.
Imagine the disappointment, discouragement, and heartbreak these students will have to stomach when they realize that 13 or 14 years in our public school system did not actually prepare them for a prosperous adulthood.
This is an injustice to our children. So, what can you do?
We all have different levels of capacity in this fight. But if you feel outraged by the state of our schools, there are many ways to plug in and make a difference.
- Share the data and the stories. Nashville needs more people to get involved in helping to turn around our schools. This is an undertaking that serves all of our kids – no matter if you live on the Westside, Northside, Eastside or Southside. Every single child in Nashville deserves access to a high-quality school.
- Raise your voice in front of your elected officials. Demand a triage plan to help students who are in school today. We are witnessing a public education system in crisis, beginning with early childhood education and continuing through to adulthood. Be vocal.
- Volunteer your time to address root issues. To be most successful in their academic futures, children need to be reading at grade level by third grade. Become a mentor to a high school student, or read to 20 minutes a day to a child who needs it. Today, only 25% of our third graders have mastered or are on track to mastery in English Language Arts, and math proficiency is even worse.
- Support great principal and teacher talent development by advocating for increased professional development and practice sharing in the teaching community. See the Tennessee State Board of Education’s ranking of top programs for aspiring educators.
Whether you are ready to be a boots-on-the-ground problem solver, or prefer to play the role of an outside advocate, Nashville needs you.
We cannot keep turning a blind eye. Instead, let’s band together and push for transformative change that will allow all high school graduates to succeed after graduation, whatever pathway they choose. The children of Nashville deserve this— and our city is worth it.
Tara Scarlett is President & CEO of the Scarlett Family Foundation.