THEC REPORT: Tennessee Students Unprepared for College

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A new report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) presented to the Legislature earlier this week has the education community scrambling to explain how, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending over the past eight years, Tennessee schools are not adequately preparing college-bound students for college work. New state data reveals about half of Tennessee students enrolled in higher education during the 2016-2017 school year needed remedial classes in math or reading, or both, during their fist year of college.

According to the THEC report, 46 percent of Tennessee high school graduates enrolled in state colleges or community colleges needed math remediation; 30 percent of enrollees needed reading remediation during their first year of college. Students must take remedial classes if they score 18 (out of a top score of 36) or below on an ACT subtest in math or reading.

The disturbing data revealing the lack of readiness by college-bound students does not include Tennessee high school students that did not seek to pursue higher education opportunities. The percentages of those students who would need remedial work in math and reading after completing K-12 but did not enroll in Tennessee colleges and universities would almost certainly be even higher. Students who enrolled in colleges and universities outside the State of Tennessee are also not included in the THEC data, nor is information from private high schools in Tennessee.

You  can search the THEC database for every public school in the state, as well as every county in the state (enter the county name only), here:

(Editor’s Note updated February 17, 7:00 pm: This THEC data was provided to The Tennessean statehouse reporters. The Tennessean/Gannett then built the searchable database so readers could see the data for their individual high school and county. The Tennesseean/Gannett then embedded that searchable Cloud database above and posted it in a sharable, publicly available link in this story at the Memphis Commercial Appeal and this story at The Tennessean.)

Tennessee Star Political Editor Steve Gill criticized THEC’s lack of transparency for the manner in which the facts of the report were selectively made available to the public.

“The THEC report presented to the Senate Education Committee last week either hasn’t been posted on the THEC site or is pretty well hidden on their site. That lack of transparency is almost as concerning as the information revealed in the report itself,” Gill pointed out.

“Tennessee taxpayers are paying the costs for a lot of students to attend our colleges who are clearly unprepared for college level work, and yet they are apparently earning college credits for doing high school remedial work. THEC and the Legislature need to let taxpayers know exactly what we are getting from the Haslam ‘free college’ plan that appears to mainly provide the 13th year of K-12 education.”

The Tennessee Star requested a copy of the THEC report that was provided to the State Senate Education Committee from the THEC on Saturday. The THEC Public Information Office (PIO) provided the slides used in the presentation to the State Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, but not a copy of the complete report with details of the dataset and the methodology used.

You can see the slides the THEC PIO provided here:


In ‘Everyone’s Best Interests’

At the State Senate Education Committee hearing held on Wednesday last week, the video of which is available on the state of Tennessee’s website, State Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said these findings are “a wake up call.”

“Are the students we are putting through our K-12 system really prepared to succeed? In other words, when they get there (to college) do they really need remedial math and English?” Lundberg asked 24 minutes in.

“People will take different impressions of this and go ‘This is why this is the fault of so and so and so and so.’ It’s not. The success of our students is in everyone’s best interests.”

THEC Executive Director Mike Krause told committee members that people should react counter-intuitively to the findings.

“Those in higher education who would look at this and say ‘yeesh, K-12 really needs to send us better people are not correct,'” Krause, an appointee of former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, said 27 minutes in.

“Higher education prepares the teachers. So, higher education’s stake in this is very significant.”

THEC’s Chief Policy and Strategy Officer Emily House, meanwhile, said the Tennessee Promise program factors into this because more kids are attending college.

Education Department officials claimed that the data reflecting lack of preparedness for college work among Tennessee high school graduates is in part a function of the fact that the “free” college offered by the Tennessee Promise program has more students attending college who would not otherwise have done so and increases the pool of those who are not prepared for the college level work.

“An important point that relates to Tennessee Promise is we talk about Promise and its impact on enrollment, which is extremely positive,” House said.

“Since the implementation of Promise, the college-going rate has increased and more students who perhaps would not have enrolled in higher education are doing so. It’s a very good thing.”

The Findings

The THEC report showed some stark differences in college preparation among counties across the state.

For example, the percentage of college students from Shelby County (Memphis) schools requiring remedial instruction were 58.1 percent for math, and 40.7 percent for reading. (In fact, every student that went on to college in 2016-2017 from three Shelby County high schools needed math remediation.)

As poorly as Shelby County performed, Davidson County (Nashville) performed even worse. A total of 62.7 percent of Davidson County students needed remedial assistance in math (four percent more than in Shelby County) and 47 percent needed it in reading (six percent more than in Shelby County).

By comparison, Williamson County students needing remedial work were only 20.3 percent for math and 12.9 percent for reading.

Other Middle Tennessee counties performed better than Davidson but not as well as Williamson, with percentages of their students needing remedial instruction as follows:

Rutherford: 42.9 percent math 27.8 percent reading
Wilson: 37.7 percent math 23.1 percent reading
Sumner: 44.0 percent math 25.4 percent reading
Maury: 47.4 percent math 31.8 percent reading
Montgomery: 44.1 percent math 25.8 percent reading

Two schools located in Williamson County — Brentwood and Ravenwood — scored among the best in the state, with Ravenwood edging cross-town rival Brentwood for slightly better numbers.

Brentwood High: 15.9 percent math 9.2 percent reading
Ravenwood High: 15.6 percent math 8.0 percent reading

(Editor’s note: This data described under “The Findings” can be found in the searchable database above in this story. For instance, to find Ravenwood High results enter “Ravenwood High”. To find results for all of Davidson County, enter “Davidson”.)

The new THEC report, which also indicates results by high school, is the first of its kind released by the State. It underlines the lagging levels of preparation that Tennessee colleges and universities must contend with as more students arrive from Tennessee high schools unprepared for college-level work.

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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to

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3 Thoughts to “THEC REPORT: Tennessee Students Unprepared for College”

  1. John

    Studies show that those students who major in Education at the undergraduate and graduate levels have the lowest IQ’s of college students. Children are being taught by the “not smartest” people.

  2. Kevin

    Hmmm, is this the reason why the Randy Boyd led, Bill Haslam initiative of giving away 2 years of “free” college education was so important? Could these two years of remedial courses, be to make up and cover up for the pathetic performance of our money “black hole” school systems?

    Here’s the blueprint for following the same trajectory as New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut… (you pick one); 1)rant and rave that our schools need more money because our kids “deserve” the best schools, 2) raise taxes to give more money to the schools systems who instead of giving all that money to the teachers, hire/promote more administrators, 3) “cheer” about how we’re the fastest improving school system in the Country until somebody catches on to your game, 4) when the results show that our kids aren’t doing as well as they should, blame the testing (it can’t be the fact that all the money went to pay over paid bureaucrats) 5)give away 2 years of free college remediation, hoping that this will cover the FUBAR, 6) when all else fails, with the rallying cry, “it’s for the children”! restart at #1.

    Yes, you too can run your State into the ground!

    1. John

      Roane County just tried to saddle its residents with a $68Million bill to erect a “Super” High School. They currently graduate High School with about a 4th grade literacy, and Roane County thinks a shiny new building will fix the problem. The people said NO.