In 2005 Tennessee had a graduation rate of about 77 percent, bad news cry education advocates. Tennessee is a low-wage state that shells out millions in corporate welfare yet gives little emphasis to the culture that results in low graduation rates.

Lack of a large middle-class and it's values of education is compounded a lack of college graduates in general - the low-pay labor climate doesn't attract higher income educated individuals. Add in a large low-achieving black population in Memphis and a growing illegal immigrant population used to further undercut wages there will be no solution.

The problem isn't more money for schools it's demographics, labor practices, and culture - these subjects are taboo in being addressed. L. Loflin

Tenn. high schools leave many students behind

To hear the State Board of Education tell it, more than 75 percent of Tennessee students graduate from high school. But the 75.7 percent graduation rate officials tout is, itself, an unreliable, even implausible figure.

A far better, albeit disturbing, indication of Tennessee's high school graduation rate has just been released by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Dr. Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Institute, calculates that Tennessee's high school graduation rate for 2002 - the latest year for which national comparative data are available - is a mere 57 percent, ranking it 48th among the 50 states. Only Georgia and South Carolina had lower rankings. Nationally, according to Greene's analysis, 71 percent of high school students graduate.

That 43 percent of Tennessee's students are failing to graduate is alarming enough, but that figure disguises even lower graduation rates among blacks and Hispanics. Previous studies by the institute have shown that more than 50 percent of black students routinely fail to graduate and that more than 60 percent of Hispanic students fail to gain a diploma. Statistics like these necessitate an immediate call to action by local and state education officials, the governor and state lawmakers.

But Tennessee's 48th-place is not the only bad news in the Manhattan Institute report. Dr. Greene's study shows that Tennessee's graduation rate, low as it is, has actually deteriorated over time. In little more than a decade, Tennessee's graduation rate has declined 12 points, from 69 percent in 1991 to 57 percent in 2002. That gives Tennessee the distinction of not only having one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation, but also one of the steepest declines over the period under study as well.

While state education officials may take issue with Dr. Greene's methodology, Tennessee's own accountability tests, established approximately a decade ago, have consistently shown disturbing racial and class divides. Such results, of course, speak to the political rationale behind the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Too often, underperforming students get lost in aggregated test scores. It's tempting for school systems to talk about academic averages and to pretend that all students are performing as well as the averages suggest. Traditionally, that is precisely how some students get left behind. But the problem doesn't end there. It's further compounded by unreliable surveys of academic accomplishment which lack a realistic methodology.

For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) a division of the U.S. Department of Education, claims that, as of 2003, 85 percent of adults 25 and older had completed high school. But, like all such surveys, the accuracy of the NCES survey is based entirely on the candor of its respondents.

As Dr. Greene observes, respondents who have not graduated high school are probably unwilling to admit it. But that's more than just a scholarly surmise. For example, there were a total of 3,852,077 public school ninth-graders during the 1998-99 school year. By 2001-02, when that class was scheduled to graduate, however, only 2,632,182 regular high school diplomas were distributed. As Dr. Greene notes, simply dividing these numbers gives a rough graduation rate estimate of 68 percent - far short of the obviously inflated 85 percent graduation rate reported by NCES.

On the individual state level, Greene says, questionable student tracking systems, along with the creative categorization of those who would otherwise be considered dropouts, routinely produce similarly inflated graduation rates as well.

This latest study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research demonstrates there is ample cause for concern about Tennessee's long-range ability to compete in and to take full advantage of the new global, information-oriented economy.

Education is the best means available to prepare Tennessee to connect and compete in the new knowledge economy. Even if Dr. Greene's calculations about Tennessee's graduation rate are wrong, the education department's own figures show nearly one in four students fails to graduate high school in this state each year. That's a waste of human potential on a truly massive scale. For their sake as well as ours, we can and we must do better.

Published: February 28, 2005 Copyright 2002 Kingsport Times-News.