Tennessee nears national goal for graduation numbers

After the presentation of graduates and conferring of degrees, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student looks back at her loved ones during commencement inside of McKenzie Arena.
After the presentation of graduates and conferring of degrees, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student looks back at her loved ones during commencement inside of McKenzie Arena.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee in 2013 ranked eighth nationally for its high school graduation rates. And the state isn't far from reaching the U.S. goal of 90 percent by 2020, according to a new report.

The report, "Building a Grad Nation," found 86.3 percent of Tennessee high school students graduated on time, meaning getting their diploma within four years. The national rate was 81.4 percent.

Iowa ranked No. 1 with an 89.7 percent graduation rate.

"Tennessee overall is doing extraordinarily well," said Jennifer DePaoli, a senior education adviser with Washington, D.C.-based Civic Enterprises and a co-author of the report, sponsored by several national organizations.

The state led the Southeast or came close to it in some subcategories such as on-time graduation rates for students who come from low-income backgrounds. Other categories include minorities and students with various disabilities.

And Georgia, which historically has had some of the nation's lowest rates, is now seeing its percentage of graduates climb. From 2011 to 2013, the state's percentage of graduates increased 4.7 percentage points, rising to 71.7 percent.

For Tennessee to attain the 90 percent goal, it needs only to add another 2,595 on top of those who graduated in 2013.

But that could be easier said than done because improvement becomes harder even as states improve, the report notes. For example, Tennessee's graduation rate increased by just 0.3 percentage points from 2011 to 2013.

"We're seeing a similarity in Tennessee that we're seeing in a lot of other states where the closer that those states get to 90 percent, the harder and harder it seems," DePaoli said.

The state has done relatively well with students who come from low-income backgrounds. In 2013, 80.7 percent of those students graduated, compared to the national average of 73.3 percent.

An estimated 94.3 percent of Tennessee students who come from "non-low income" backgrounds graduated compared to the national average of 88.2 percent.

In 2013, 78 percent of Tennessee black students graduated, compared to the 70.7 percent national average. The state's Hispanic students had a 81.2 percent graduation ratecompared to the national 75.2 percent rate.

On the other hand, in 2013, only 67.3 percent of those Tennessee students with disabilities graduated. The national average is 61.97 percent. There's considerable room to grow there, according to the report.

"We're just not seeing them graduate at the right rate," said DePaoli, noting national experts say "at least 85 percent should be graduating on time with the right supports."

There are a lot of misconceptions about those students, she said, with some tending to associate problems with intelligence. And that's often not the case, she said, noting many are intelligent, such as dyslexic students, but face challenges.

One report recommendation calls for ending so-called "zero tolerance" programs for infractions by students that can range from violating dress codes to being disruptive in class. Suspensions can put students considerably behind.

Researchers used data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education. The report is an ongoing joint project of Civic Enterprises, America's Promise Alliance, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Alliance for an Excellent Education.

Besides income, race and disability, the two other "drivers" of low graduation rates are how large a school district is and how large the state is.

Unlike some states, Tennessee's largest school systems, defined as those with 15,000 students or more, are doing relatively well. For example, Wilson County schools had a 94 percent graduation rate.

More urban systems are lower. Knox County's rate is pegged at 88 percent. Hamilton County schools were at 85 percent. Davidson County, however, was at 77 percent. And the former Memphis City Schools system, which has since merged with Shelby County schools, was 68 percent.

Efforts to reach Tennessee Education Commission Commissioner Candice McQueen for comment on Thursday were unsuccessful.

But Chalkbeat, a nonprofit Internet reporting site focusing on education issues, quoted McQueen calling the data encouraging, "especially for economically disadvantaged students" in the state.

Tennessee began focusing on its low graduation rates about ten years ago. In his 2006 State of the State address to state lawmakers, then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen challenged them to work with him to improve the state's dismal high school graduation rates. Bredesen pushed a plan that summer and came under fire from his GOP opponent, Jim Bryson, who said the governor was jumping on his own push.

Bredesen, who won re-election, later included efforts to raise graduation rates in Tennessee's Race to the Top application for a federal grant. The state won a $500 million award. His successor, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, has also pushed educational standards and achievement.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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