Tennessee's students still not making the grade

March 21, 2005

First, the good news: a greater number of Tennessee high school students are taking more academically challenging courses than ever before.

And the bad news? Tennessee is still near the bottom of the pile in preparing its students for college.

The College Board, a nonprofit organization which administers the Advanced Placement testing program, reports that Tennessee - like every other state in the nation - has shown a growing number of public high school students taking academically rigorous AP courses and scoring 3 or higher - the definition of mastery - on a 5-point AP exam scale.

But Tennessee continues to lag the nation in the percentage of students taking AP courses and in the relative mastery of these subjects.

In the class of 2004, of the 43,182 students enrolled in Tennessee public schools, just 7.9 percent scored a 3 or better on any AP exam. That compares to 13.2 percent of students nationally, placing Tennessee behind 32 states. New York tops the list with 21 percent, followed by Florida, Maryland and Utah - all at 19 percent. Virginia is at 17 percent.

As in so many other measures of academic acumen, Tennessee finds itself, once again, in that all-too-familiar "thank God for Mississippi (2.9 percent) and Louisiana (2.5 percent)."

More and more states are attempting to bolster the number of high school students who take college preparatory courses and exams - Tennessee among them. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, chairman of the National Governor's Association, has made such a goal an educational priority of that organization.

But merely increasing the number of students taking AP courses isn't sufficient. The College Board reports huge differences in the relative rigor of such programs among the various states. Designating a class as an Advanced Placement course means relatively little if the teacher isn't qualified to teach it or the standards aren't sufficiently high to ensure those who pass it are competent.

The Southern Regional Education Board reports that the scores of Tennessee students on national achievement tests are no closer to national averages than in the late 1980s. And on the most recent math tests conducted through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 26 percent of the state's fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders scored at the proficient or above level - something that doesn't bode well for future high school scores.

Tennessee's dropout rate - less than 76 percent of high school students graduated in 2004 - is among the highest in the South, itself a high-dropout region of the country. And of those who go on to higher education in Tennessee - the intellectual cream of the crop - approximately half will take at least one developmental or remedial class. Developmental courses are a university euphemism for high school graduates who can't reliably craft coherent paragraphs or perform ninth-grade-level math. Even more troubling, community colleges offer aptly named remedial classes that teach students the reading, writing and arithmetic skills they should have mastered in middle school.

While Tennessee has made some progress in coaxing more students into higher level course work, a host of regional and national studies shows that much more remains to be done to increase the quality and accountability of Tennessee's public schools and, thus, the readiness of its students for college. The latest SREB report shows that the state's combined enrollment in Algebra I and pre-algebra is just 54 percent, placing Tennessee at 15th of 16 states in a region that is not a standout by comparison with the nation at large.

In order to make the kind of progress that will make a real and lasting difference, Tennessee must make education, from kindergarten through college, a priority. That is the only way to make the next generation of children ready for the high-tech world and global economy that are the key to our collective future.

Copyright 2005 Kingsport Times-News.