Tennessee's top education officials say they don't suspect any organized cheating, even as a third of the state's graduates failed to get all the necessary credits last year. The state initially revealed the issue in a report meant to shed light on why Tennessee graduates tend to struggle so much in college.
Turns out, one in three diplomas were given to students who didn't get the 22 credits they were supposed to. Most often, seniors were missing their foreign language requirement. Or maybe they took enough social studies courses, just not the right ones.
The state's chief data officer, Nate Schwartz, says the deeper he digs, the more he's convinced that it was all an honest mistake.
"In working with our districts and in looking at the data, we just haven't seen evidence of that kind of bad behavior here yet," he says. "It might still come out. And if it comes out, I would argue that our willingness to publish this report about ourselves provides some evidence that we'd be willing to say it if we find it, but I don't think we've found it yet."
No recent graduates are going to have their diplomas revoked. State education officials are letting schools know what does and doesn't work — like that journalism can't substitute for an English credit. But they're also looking at making it harder for students to get a waiver from taking their foreign language, especially since most four-year colleges require it.
"It is a district's responsibility to verify students have met graduation requirements and issue diplomas," said Tennessee Education Department spokesperson Sara Gast. "And from the state's perspective, based on our current understanding of these situations, we would not retroactively revoke a student's diploma."
How The Problem Came To Light
For the first time, state officials led an audit to see whether graduates were fulfilling the state's graduation requirements. One in three weren't, according to the report.
The state requires graduates to take at least 22 high school credits, the report explains, "including four English and math courses, three science courses, four social studies courses, and two foreign language courses."
This comes just a few months after Tennessee took a bow for steadily improving its high school graduation rate. In the 2015-16 school year, the state raised its rate by nearly a percentage point, to 88.5 percent.
Tennessee education officials blame the failure on a combination of factors, including data entry errors, a lack of teachers and counselors, and genuine misunderstandings about graduation requirements.
In 28 percent of Tennessee high schools, fewer than half of graduates met the state's requirements. These were often smaller schools that, while they offered all the necessary courses, are less able to provide the structure, oversight and counseling needed to keep students on track.
Students who failed to earn the proper requirements were less likely to enroll at a post-secondary institution the next fall.
"I sometimes ask questions that maybe people think I should know the answer to," said Wendy Tucker, a Tennessee State School Board member, during a presentation of the report to the board. "Are we saying that a third of our high school graduates didn't actually meet the requirements to graduate, under the law, but got diplomas?"
Tucker, a former education advisor to Nashville's mayor, paused, incredulous.
"I'm just having a hard time reconciling 'requirement' with 'didn't do it,' " she continued. "This could explain some of our post-secondary success issues if kids are graduating without actually meeting the requirements."
Tennessee public school students' average score on the ACT college entrance exam is below both the national average and the state's own standard for college and career-readiness.
Tennessee officials say the graduation problem now has their full attention and that it can't happen again. Education commissioner Candice McQueen says she plans to take "some pretty drastic measures" to ensure a Tennessee diploma remains meaningful.