Tennessee caused a stir earlier this year when it ran an audit of the state's 2015 graduating class. The number crunchers in Nashville reported that nearly a third of students who received a diploma didn't complete the required coursework. One in three.

Naturally, parents and politicians alike were baffled and more than a little bothered.

"I'm just having a hard time reconciling 'requirement' with 'didn't do it,'" board member Wendy Tucker said at a public meeting, hypothesizing on the spot that this could explain Tennessee's trouble with students succeeding in college. Less than a quarter of high-school graduates earn a postsecondary degree.

She wasn't the only one having a hard time. The state's Department of Education struggled to explain the gap. After further review, it has since offered a combination of explanations:

  1. Data entry — Guidance counselors were simply putting in the wrong course codes, so, at the state level, students appeared to have missed credits that they really hadn't. That was roughly a third of the problem.
  2. Incorrect substitutions — For example, letting ancient history (not a requirement) count for world history (a requirement). These accounted for another third.
  3. Foreign language — The final third of the gap reveals a philosophical disconnect between state-level administrators and many rural districts.

Let's focus on that last group. Roughly 11 percent of students in the audited year graduated without the required two years of a foreign language. This was not a problem with data entry. There was no mistake.

In 2011, Tennessee raised the bar to graduate after being scolded nationally for subpar standards that had effectively propped up its graduation rate. The state essentially got rid of its vocational track in an effort to make sure every student is "college and career ready." That decision forced every student onto what previously would have been considered the college track, including a requirement for two foreign-language credits.

"In a perfect world, you want every kid to go to college. Not going to happen," says Billy Hall, director of schools in Scott County. His rural, mountainous district often has some of the highest unemployment in Tennessee. It also has some of the highest use of foreign language waivers.

Under special circumstances, the state allows districts to give students a kind of free pass, exempting them from the foreign language requirement. In the year Tennessee officials audited, 30 percent of Scott County graduates received permission to skip French or Spanish.

"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."

State data show that rural districts are the heaviest users of these waivers. Administrators argue they're doing students a favor, especially those with plans for a technical career.

"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?" says Melissa Rector, principal at Scott County's high school.

Rector puts a priority on helping students land a job in her economically depressed region. And that's why she's happy to accept every waiver that students bring in; each requires a parent's signature but no other explanation.

Those waivers have a clear disclaimer that the student will have trouble getting into college without the language credits. But Rector shares her superintendent's view of higher education.

"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," she says. "In doing that, we have oftentimes ignored some of the other opportunities that are there, that can lead to very lucrative careers."

State officials have pushed back against this argument — that students are forgoing a language to focus on technical courses. According to the state's data, 40 percent of those who were granted waivers in 2015 were not on track toward some kind of technical certification.

Rector acknowledges that having to pass two years of a foreign language could prevent some students from even getting their diploma. And that would set them back even further in the job market.

"We do have students who are first-generation high school graduates," Rector 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."

State officials are careful not to come down too hard on rural administrators, but they also insist that foreign language credits are part of what make a Tennessee diploma more meaningful than it used to be.

"We would not have those as part of our diploma project standards if we didn't think they were important," says Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen.

Does that mean students are required to take a foreign language? While state officials seem irritated by just how often waivers are being used, they haven't suggested cracking down, which would almost certainly have negative effects on closely watched metrics like the state's graduation rate.

If anything needs changing, McQueen says, she wants to make sure parents and students get a clear warning about the implications on their future. Besides, she says, the waivers still serve an important purpose.

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