Tennessee Education Association

Great Public Schools for All Students


Context matters more than dramatic headlines

By Beth Brown, TEA President

Artist Kenneth Noland said, “For me context is key—from that comes the understanding of everything.” Without seeing the complete picture, we cannot fully appreciate art…or statistics.

Recent headlines proclaimed “large numbers of Tennessee students not ready for college” based on the number of students needing remediation. It’s important that we look at that data in context.

Tennessee teachers are working hard to open post-secondary opportunities to more and more of our students. The Tennessee Promise provides an avenue for more graduates to begin college, and school counselors across our state are going the extra mile to make sure more and more seniors fill out federal student aid and Promise forms. 

After years of work since the Hope Scholarship was enacted, Tennessee has the highest federal student aid form completion rate in the country, partly because the form is required to remain eligible for Tennessee Promise.  

With a state ACT average score of 20.2 and more Tennessee high school graduates going to college, it is understandable more enrollees will fall below the 19 ACT score threshold for math and reading that triggers extra help in Tennessee community colleges. However, there is steady progress to reduce remediation rates, especially compared to other states.       

Tennessee has seen steady progress in ACT scores, which hit an all-time high last year. We are one of 20 states requiring all students to take the ACT. Of those states, Tennessee ranks 6th in average ACT scores, while we rank 14th in funding and 39th in K-12 funding overall. We get more return on our investment than any other state. It would be amazing to see Tennessee fund its schools to the regional average. If we get these types of results with limited resources, imagine the return on investment if we had increased funding.

Of the five states requiring ACT with higher average scores than Tennessee, all have far fewer students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, with student poverty rates one-third less than Tennessee on average. 

As a rural educator, I know about limited resources and working with students on the economic margins. Poverty and insecurity are real barriers to learning; it may be harder for students to envision going to college if none of their family members have ever been themselves. Yet it is wonderful we broaden the college expectations of more and more students, seeing them taking that giant first step.

One solution to improve student ACT scores is test-prep courses. In my school, I have taught ACT prep courses. After learning test-taking strategies, students demonstrated significant gains on benchmark tests within my class, and those gains were also evident when students took the actual ACT. 

ACT is a good measure. Perhaps it’s time to look at using ACT subject tests in earlier grades as an alternative to TNReady. Based on my experiences as an ACT prep teacher, I have a feeling that familiarity with the assessment will result in higher scores, which in turn will reduce the number of students requiring remediation in college.

When I consider the context of ACT scores and student participation in post-secondary opportunities, I have a clear understanding: Tennessee’s educators are working hard with limited resources, and our students are demonstrating progress. Those efforts and achievements should be celebrated as we continue our work to ensure that every student in Tennessee has a great public education.

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