NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nearly half of Tennessee students enrolled in higher education during the 2016-2017 school year needed some sort of remedial classes during their first year of college, according to new state data.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission released the numbers this week which have since sparked shock and dismay from lawmakers who have taken pride in touting the state's gains in education over the past few years.
According to the report, 46 percent of higher education enrollees needed math remediation while 30 percent of enrollees needed reading remediation during that first year of college. Students need to take remedial classes if they score 18 or below on an ACT subtest.
Sen. Jon Lundberg, a Republican from Bristol who asked the commission for the data, described the numbers as a rude wakeup call.
"People are going to take different impressions of this and go, well, this is the fault of so-and-so. It's not," Lundberg said. "The success of our students is everyone's best interest."
In 2016, Tennessee restructured how remedial courses at Tennessee community colleges and universities operated by allowing freshman students deemed unprepared for college-level work to take for-credit courses while enrolling in learning support classes. The new system replaced earlier rules that required underprepared students to pass a remedial course before taking college-level courses.
The change was hailed as a much-needed solution after seeing many college students were stalling in remedial courses and not earning the college credits needed to graduate. And while remediation numbers did decline in the following years, the commission's data revealed there's still much more work to do in order to ensure students are prepared to succeed in college.
"I think in every presentation that I have personally done in the past couple of years, I've talked about and said I'm so proud of Tennessee. We're the fastest growing state when it comes to K-12 education and we all pat ourselves on the back. It's been great. But it's difficult to put that into context," Lundberg said.
The commission's data shows wide variances on both a school district and county level.
For example, every student that went on to college in 2016-2017 from three Shelby County high schools needed math remediation. Those same schools had similarly high numbers for students needing reading remediation. However, overall, 58 percent of Shelby County students that went onto college needed math remediation and 40 percent needed reading remediation.
"Unfortunately, I have to point out that all three of these are in my home county of Shelby. And I just point that out ... to remind the members that we do really need some help in Shelby County. We have some major challenges to overcome and we need to address that this year," said Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Collierville.
In Davidson County — home of Nashville's schools — more than 62 percent of students that went into the state's college system in that same year needed math remediation and 47 percent needed reading remediation.
The data only showed students who went on to college and not those who presumably also scored low on the ACT and did not go on to college. This means the overall college-ready rates are likely even more stark, said Emily House, the chief policy and strategy officer for the commission.
Despite the bleak numbers, Mike Krause, executive director of the higher education commission, says Tennessee's recent success of improving its K-12 education and getting more kids to college over the years are a reason to remain hopeful.
"I think there is a chance for this to be an opportunity," he said. "To be an opportunity to work with the Department of Education and our school districts to do exactly what we've done in the past 10 years — which is look a challenge in the face and understand it does our students no good to look away from the hard data."