Setting Pathways for Success in Tennessee

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Governor Haslam set a unifying vision for Tennessee in 2013 when he announced Drive to 55 – a goal that clearly articulated the need for more Tennesseans to gain postsecondary credentials to meet the workforce demands in our state. This goal was then strengthened by Tennessee Promise, which provides every high school graduate an opportunity to attend two years of community or technical college free of charge. In only the first year of Tennessee Promise, we are seeing more students going to college. In fact, in 2016 we celebrated a 5 percent increase in the number of new students going into higher education – and that one-year increase was as much as the previous six years combined.

That shows the incredible ability we have to open new doors for our students through our strategic investments and partnerships. The success of Drive to 55 and Tennessee Promise is predicated on the notion that education in Tennessee from kindergarten through college will succeed in getting students both on the pathway to postsecondary and ready for the workforce. So, it is reasonable to step back and take an authentic look at where we can improve in K-12 to ensure we have students ready to take advantage of the historic opportunities in Tennessee.

We decided to analyze our progress from various viewpoints – from what our data is showing us about student access and success to course-taking patterns in high school to what our own high school students tell us – and then looked at the feedback holistically. This led us to a new report, Seamless Pathways: Bridging Tennessee’s Gap Between High School and Postsecondary, that is being released today. This report is being released on the heels of the Career Forward Task Force Report that also focused on putting forth recommendations for how to ensure student readiness for college and career. Both of these reports point to more that can be done from the state to the local level to set up all students for success.

Key takeaways

One of the most important takeaways from today’s report is the value of collective engagement and ownership in ensuring students both know and are on pathways to postsecondary. From the department’s engagement with high school students in 26 focus groups across Tennessee, we have learned that students receive inconsistent opportunities and messages about college. Roughly half of the students we engaged with said a multitude of early postsecondary opportunities – such as dual enrollment and AP – were available to them, while the other half verbalized few opportunities to engage in any early college experience or preparation. In about the same proportion, students either expressed full understanding of how to get to college or how ill-prepared they felt. In particular, students felt like much of what they received was too little, too late as they crammed to prepare for scholarships and financial aid, as well as for opportunities they knew little about prior to their senior year of high school.

Another related takeaway is the issue of students graduating without meeting Tennessee’s minimum requirements for a diploma. While students are graduating with adequate course credits, not all students are graduating with the required set of college-readiness courses as set in state policy. In our review, we found that one-third of students graduated without actually completing the required courses – ones that would additionally prepare students for college success. We want our high school diploma to be meaningful, and while we know that some form of postsecondary is critical in today’s economy, we want students’ high school diploma to serve as a passport into postsecondary opportunities, whether that’s a four-year institution, community college, or technical training program.

As noted in the report, the missed courses have consequences, with students who completed requirements more often enrolling in a postsecondary institution in the fall compared to their peers who did not complete them.

In most of our schools, the majority of students met all course requirements. But in 28 percent of high schools, less than half of graduates met all course requirements, even though the necessary courses were offered within the school. This again points to inconsistencies and inequities in how we are getting students ready for postsecondary opportunities – especially because the students who often need the support the most are not receiving it.

We know there are some disconnects between what our educators think is happening and what students experience. For example, in our most recent educator survey, nearly 80 percent teachers said the majority of their students were planning to go to a postsecondary education or training program, but we know that nearly 35 percent of high school graduates do not enroll in postsecondary within two years of graduation.

Others quickly drop out after enrolling. Similarly, more than 90 percent of teachers said their students were encouraged to pursue early postsecondary opportunities, but we know only about 40 percent of our students attempted even one early postsecondary credit – and only a quarter performed well enough to earn it. Finally, we also see that 85 percent of our teachers believe that their curriculum is helping students to pursue postsecondary education and/or training programs, but half of freshmen in Tennessee community colleges needed at least one remedial course.

Pathways forward

Changing this trajectory starts with believing in every student’s potential. All students deserve the opportunity to pursue the range of opportunities available after graduation. We know that of the graduates who go straight into the workforce from high school, they only earn between $9,000 and $11,000 a year – far below the poverty line. We want to encourage our schools and districts to think more thoughtfully and creatively about how they are equipping students – not just doing the minimum to meet graduation requirements, but helping that student enter into seamless pathways that can provide them with something that will help them be successful at the next level, whether that’s an industry certification, work-based experience, or course credit they can use in college. This has to be our new normal.

Our report today puts forth four recommendations for our school and district leaders, which we will support from the state level:

  1. Foster collective responsibility among middle and high school faculty and staff for the postsecondary preparedness of their students.
  2. Communicate with students about their postsecondary and career options early and often.
  3. Ensure all students have equitable access to course opportunities to increase postsecondary readiness and success.
  4. Leverage external partnerships and resources for added capacity, expertise, and influence.

We’ve also proposed to shine a spotlight on access to early postsecondary opportunities and which students have access to them. As part of our plan to transition to the new federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, we’ve built a school-level accountability model that goes beyond test scores to also look at whether students have the opportunity to learn and if their high schools are preparing them to be ready at graduation. This “Ready Graduate” indicator will look at the percentage of students who earn a 21 or higher on the ACT or who achieve certain early postsecondary credits, which will provide more accountability for schools to provide these opportunities and create transparency among our families and communities.

All of this is in perfect alignment with Gov. Haslam’s Drive to 55 vision. As we increase the number of students who are on clear and seamless pathways in high school and the number of opportunities they have in high school that prepare them for what’s next, we are confident that more of our students will leave high school equipped with the knowledge they need to get a high-skilled, high-wage job in the workplace or enter their college classroom ready to go on day one. More students will be better equipped to take care of themselves and their families, they will have confidence in their abilities to succeed in career fields that interest them, and they will become the entrepreneurs, civic leaders, employers, public officials, and educators that will make our state a leader for decades to come.