In Tennessee's most rural school districts, nearly a third of students are graduating without the required two years of a foreign language. And a district with some of the highest use of foreign language waivers defends the practice as helpful to students.
"What is the benefit of having them take a foreign language class versus two additional welding courses that helps them earn hours toward their certificate to enter the job market sooner?" asks Melissa Rector, principal at Scott County's high school.
In Rector's county on the rural Cumberland Plateau, the unemployment rate is often the highest in the state. She figures giving students the best chance of landing a job is her primary goal. And that's why she's happy to accept every waiver that students bring in — with a parent's signature. In 2015, that was 30 percent of graduates, according to state records obtained by WPLN.
Those waivers have a clear disclaimer that the student will have trouble getting into any Tennessee Board of Regents school without the credits.
"College is something that in today's educational landscape has tried to be marketed as the next step for everyone, and that's just simply not true sometimes," Rector says. "And in doing that, we have often times ignored some of the other opportunities that are there, that can lead to very lucrative careers."
Rector points out that not all careers require a student to be "college-ready." She also acknowledges that for some students, having to pass two years of a foreign language could prevent them from even getting their diploma.
"We do have students who are first-generation high school graduates," she says. "They may or may not have the home support that they need to be successful, so that makes it even more challenging when they come into the school environment."
Raising Graduation Standards
This year, state officials have been auditing graduation rates for the first time. They found at nearly a third of all graduates in 2015 were missing some kind of credits, though they have since revised that figure and admitted some mistakes with how they handled the data.
Despite the confusion, the point is to check whether students are getting the 22 required credits under the Diploma Project. Before 2011, students had the option of a college track or a technical education track. This was deemed by outsiders to give the state artificially high graduation numbers.
At the same time, the state began allowing districts to grant waivers to students who wanted to sidestep foreign language and arts requirements — no excuse needed.
In the Nashville area, almost every school district had fewer than one percent of graduates in 2015 receiving foreign language waivers. But Middle Tennessee did have some districts on the upper-end of the state, with Smith County at 20 percent, Bedford at 15 percent and Hickman at 14 percent.
Now that they're taking a close look, the state's Department of Education has been surprised how frequently waivers are used. But they also admit they don't have a policy that outlines specific restrictions or a cap on how many waivers a school can grant.
"We think there's a real advantage to exposing students to foreign language and fine arts coursework as well as industry coursework," says Laura Encalade, chief of staff to the state's education commissioner.
"We want Tennessee to be a state that prioritizes both college and career. To us, this isn't an either-or debate. It's really about how do we equip students to have a wealth of different opportunities when they leave us at the end of high school."
But on the ground in a place like Scott County, administrators say there's no sense in pretending every student has to be ready for university-level work.
"In a perfect world, you want every kid to go to college — not going to happen," says Scott County superintendent Billy Hall.
Don't expect Scott County to stop liberally approving foreign language waivers, unless forced. Hall says he's not feeling pressure, despite the state audit's findings.
"All this has been done with state notifications. It's all been plain. It's all been simple," Hall says. "It is in writing, and it is in law that it can be done."