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This is a tale of 54,041 high school diplomas. That’s the number of public high school diplomas awarded in Tennessee last year (2006-2007). There are 324 public high schools in Tennessee. The public high schools are operated by 119 public school systems. There are 137 public school systems in Tennessee, but only 119 of them operate high schools.

I got curious this week about tracking down median ACT scores for Public vs. Private vs. Homeschool high school graduates. It turns out, even in the age of public data on the internet that this is not an easy question to answer. If the data to answer this question already exists somewhere on the internet, it’s extraordinarily well hidden. I spent several days searching for it… and I’m pretty handy with google. I did discover a blog in Kentucky which contained interesting articles commenting on the meaning of median ACT scores released for that state. Kentucky’s scores, released by ACT, Inc. of Iowa, give the median for ALL high school seniors, public, private, and homeschool. From the ACT data alone, you cannot tell how the public schools are performing, because ACT will not disagregate the data. Tennessee ACT scores are released in the same format as Kentucky.

But, it turns out, in Tennessee at least, there is a way to calculate median ACT score for the public schools. And if we know the number of public school students who took the ACT, and their median score, then we can calculate the median score for the remaining non-public school students.

In 2007, the median ACT for all students in Tennessee taking the test was 20.7. This is slightly below ( a half a point) the national ACT median score of 21.2. A half a point difference between two individual scores is probably not terribly significant. There are too many variables that can’t be controlled between two individual scores to ever be able to know why one student scored a half a point higher than another. BUT, comparing the median scores of two significantly sized groups IS meaningful… because all the individual variations offset and cancel each other out. 48,113 students took the ACT in Tennessee in 2007. 1,300,599 students took it nationwide. Comparing the averages for those two very large populations does tell us, with a pretty high degree of confidence, that Tennessee students did not perform quite as well as the national average.

But those 48,113 Tennessee students include public school, high school, and homeschool students. I have an inquiry in to ACT, Inc. asking them for the disaggregated data for those three groups, but they haven’t responded to me. The data would be very helpful in discussing some pretty pressing public policy questions about education. I don’t think it’s an accident that ACT doesn’t make the data readily available. I have the feeling that the data are not very flattering to public school administrators. And I suspect that’s why ACT hasn’t made them available.

But in Tennessee, there is another source of data about public school ACT scores – the Tennessee Department of Education itself. The Department has an online database that reports the number of students who took the ACT and the median composite score by school system. Actually, the online database has a great deal more information than that, but the median composite ACT scores are what I was interested in.

I don’t know whether it’s intentional or not, but the Tennessee DOE does not report the statewide median ACT score, nor does it make it easy to calculate, but all the pieces are there, on their website – they just have to be assembled.

So, I spent about four or five hours today, using the free wifi at University Pizza & Deli in Chattanooga, to pull up and copy off the median composite ACT scores for all 119 public high school systems in Tennessee. 35,725 public school students (out of 54,041 who graduate) too the ACT in 2007 – about 66.1% of the graduates. The median composite ACT score for all of them was 20.30. Since there were a total of 48,113 students who took the ACT in Tennessee, we can subtract out the public school students and the remaining 12,388 students were non-public school (private schools and home schools). And since we know the median composite ACT score for ALL students in Tennessee was 20.7 and the median for the PUBLIC school students was 20.30, we can calculate what the median composite score for the non-public schools was: that median composite ACT score in 2007 was 21.85.

So, we can now end the speculation and report with confidence that in 2007, in Tennessee, ALL students averaged a 20.7 composite ACT score, PUBLIC SCHOOL students averaged a 20.30 composite ACT score, and PRIVATE SCHOOL students averaged 21.85 composite ACT score. In other words, in 2007 private schools and home schools averaged 1.15 points higher on the ACT than the public schools. But of course, it’s the private school diplomas that the Department of Education thinks are suspect.

Since I had to compile the data for all 119 systems in a spreadsheet, I’ll post all of the data here – so that others can check my calculations, and so that the data will be available to everyone interested.

There are a number of other interesting observations about the public high schools that can be made from the data.

For example, here are the 10 public school systems in Tennessee with the HIGHEST median composite ACT scores:

TENNESSEE REGULAR % TAKING 2007 ACT Composite
SCHOOL SYSTEM DIPLOMAS ACT n median
1 Maryville City 321 76.9% 247 23.67
2 Oak Ridge City 321 68.8% 221 23.53
3 Kingsport City 400 82.8% 331 22.74
4 Greenville City 209 66.5% 139 22.68
5 Williamson Co. 1,966 80.6% 1,584 22.54
6 Tullahoma City 239 77.4% 185 22.35
7 Johnson City 398 73.1% 291 22.34
8 Pickett Co. 46 58.7% 27 22.11
9 Alcoa City 107 74.8% 80 22.01
10 Knox Co. 3,257 66.6% 2,168 21.97

And here are the 10 public school systems with the LOWEST median composite ACT scores:

TENNESSEE REGULAR % TAKING 2007 ACT Composite
SCHOOL SYSTEM DIPLOMAS ACT n median
1 Fayette Co. 187 65.2% 122 15.80
2 Memphis City 5,741 67.9% 3,898 17.56
3 Hancock Co. 62 38.7% 24 17.96
4 Haywood Co. 170 71.2% 121 17.98
5 Lake Co. 51 70.6% 36 18.11
6 Grainger Co. 241 53.1% 128 18.41
7 W. Carroll 79 54.4% 43 18.47
8 Campbell Co. 299 58.2% 174 18.63
9 Union Co. 196 53.1% 104 18.63
10 Hardeman Co. 234 56.0% 131 18.66

Here are the Here are the 10 public school systems in Tennessee with the HIGHEST percentage of graduating seniors who take the ACT:

TENNESSEE REGULAR % TAKING 2007 ACT Composite
SCHOOL SYSTEM DIPLOMAS ACT n median
1 McMinn Co. 292 92.5% 270 20.33
2 Union City 77 88.3% 68 19.93
3 Kingsport City 400 82.8% 331 22.74
4 Williamson Co. 1,966 80.6% 1,584 22.54
5 Bradford City 41 80.5% 33 19.18
6 Oneida City 83 79.5% 66 20.58
7 Shelby Co. 2,561 78.5% 2,010 21.72
8 Madison Co. 679 78.2% 531 19.27
9 Tullahoma City 239 77.4% 185 22.35
10 Huntingdon City 70 77.1% 54 20.20

And here are the Here are the 10 public school systems in Tennessee with the LOWEST percentage of graduating seniors who take the ACT:

TENNESSEE REGULAR % TAKING 2007 ACT Composite
SCHOOL SYSTEM DIPLOMAS ACT n median
1 Hancock Co. 62 38.7% 24 17.96
2 Fentress Co. 60 41.7% 25 19.92
3 Sequatchie Co. 116 44.8% 52 19.71
4 Greene Co. 488 45.7% 223 20.06
5 Trousdale Co. 91 47.3% 43 19.12
6 Johnson Co. 156 47.4% 74 19.81
7 Meigs Co. 94 48.9% 46 20.37
8 Washington Co. 656 50.8% 333 20.68
9 Bledsoe Co. 102 51.0% 52 20.73
10 Jefferson Co. 449 52.1% 234 20.52

Here are the 10 public school systems in Tennessee with the LARGEST number of graduating seniors who take the ACT:

TENNESSEE REGULAR % TAKING 2007 ACT Composite
SCHOOL SYSTEM DIPLOMAS ACT n median
1 Memphis City 5,741 67.9% 3,898 17.56
2 Davidson Co. 3,601 64.1% 2,307 19.11
3 Knox Co. 3,257 66.6% 2,168 21.97
4 Shelby Co. 2,561 78.5% 2,010 21.72
5 Rutherford Co. 2,328 66.1% 1,539 20.91
6 Hamilton Co. 2,322 68.0% 1,580 19.60
7 Williamson Co. 1,966 80.6% 1,584 22.54
8 Sumner Co. 1,691 62.9% 1,063 20.81
9 Montgomery Co. 1,644 59.9% 984 21.23
10 Wilson Co. 1,040 67.9% 706 20.70

And here are the 10 public school systems in Tennessee with the SMALLEST number of graduating seniors who take the ACT:

TENNESSEE REGULAR % TAKING 2007 ACT Composite
SCHOOL SYSTEM DIPLOMAS ACT n median
1 S. Carroll 31 58.1% 18 20.28
2 Van Buren Co. 37 62.2% 23 18.83
3 Richard City 37 70.3% 26 20.15
4 Bradford City 41 80.5% 33 19.18
5 Pickett Co. 46 58.7% 27 22.11
6 Hollow Rock-Bruceton City 47 57.4% 27 20.22
7 Lake Co. 51 70.6% 36 18.11
8 Fentress Co. 60 41.7% 25 19.92
9 Hancock Co. 62 38.7% 24 17.96
10 Huntingdon City 70 77.1% 54 20.20

The only significant sized sample of homeschoolers with ACT scores that I could find were 1997, 1998, and 2004 data released by ACT (cited on the HSLDA website). ACT reported that in 1997, 1,926 homeschoolers had a median composite ACT score of 22.5. ACT reported that in 1998, 2,610 homeschoolers had a median composite ACT score of 22.8. ACT reported that in 2004, 7,858 homeschoolers had a median composite ACT score of 22.6. These data are remarkably consistent over time AND they are significantly ABOVE the national averages. But remember, according the the Tennessee Department of Education, it is the homeschooler’s diplomas that are suspect.

Now, don’t you feel like you know the public school system in Tennessee much better?

Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves. Comments encouraged and solicited. Once again: here is the data. Or should that be, “here ARE the data…”

- Rob Shearer
Director, Schaeffer Study Center

The Tennessee Department of Education has recently defended its decision not to recognize homeschool diplomas with the assertion that because they were prohibited from having anything to do with the selection of a curriculum, teachers, or textbooks in the church-related schools which “umbrella” homeschoolers they had no way to tell what a homeschool diploma represented.

So, the current status in Tennessee is that anyone from a public school (or a private accredited school) who presents a diploma in order to be hired as a daycare worker, police officer, fireman (or any other position which state law requires a high school diploma for) will be automatically accepted. Anyone who presents a homeschool diploma will be automatically rejected.

I have some news for the Department of Education officials. When a public school graduate presents a diploma, no one has any way to tell what it represents either. Did the ertswhile young graduate have an A average or a D- average? There is no minimum GPA requirement for graduation from a public high school in Tennessee. See the graduation requirements here on the Department of Education website for confirmation.

The final requirement on that page requiring a score of “proficient” on the three Gateway exams (Biology I, English II, Algebra I) has been altered, by the way. The Gateway exams are gone. They will be replaced with ten standard state-wide end-of-course tests that all public school students will be required to take. But the new tests won’t be high-stakes must-pass gateway exams. Instead, they will count as 25% of the student’s final grade in each of the ten designated courses.

Which only exacerbates the problem of how do you know what a public school diploma represents? Apparently it represents 20 courses, spread over four years (five per year) distributed over English, Math, Science, & Social Studies. In these four categories, only English is required to be taken in all four years of high school. So all you really know about a public school graduate with a high school diploma is that they at least passed 20 courses.

I don’t know of ANY private school, church-related school, or homeschool anywhere in Tennessee that requires LESS than 20 courses before they award a high school diploma. And yet, homeschool diplomas are automatically rejected by the Department of Education, while public school diplomas are automatically accepted.

In TN, 92% of high school graduates take the ACT test. In 2007 (the last year for which data was available) the average composite score for Tennessee high school grads was 20.7. Nationally it was 21.2.

And homeschoolers? The latest and largest study is from 1998, but since the ACT is so closely controlled statistically, it is possible to compare test scores from year to year. Here’s an excerpt from the ERIC clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation:

Home school students did quite well in 1998 on the ACT college entrance examination. They had an average ACT composite score of 22.8 which is .38 standard deviations above the national ACT average of 21.0 (ACT,1998).This places the average home school student in the 65th percentile of all ACT test takers.

The superior performance of home school students on achievement tests can easily be misinterpreted. This study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools. It should not be cited as evidence that our public schools are failing. It does not indicate that children will perform better academically if they are home schooled. The design of this study and the data do not warrant such claims. All the comparisons of home school students with the general population and with the private school population in this report fail to consider a myriad of differences between home school and public school students. We have no information as to what the achievement levels of home school students would be had they been enrolled in public or private schools. This study only shows that a large group of parents choosing to make a commitment to home schooling were able to provide a very successful academic environment.

The full article is Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998, by Lawrence Rudner, published in the peer-reviewed EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES.

There are specific ACT results for homeschoolers in Tennessee for only one year:

YEAR : 2005
Homeschoolers : 20.7
All Students: 20.5
( ACT report, TN, 2005, page 17)

For some curious reason, ACT no longer reports the homeschool ACT scores separately in its reports for 2006 and 2007.

So, in summary: Homeschoolers as a group have superior performance on every nationally normed test for which data are available, significantly above the public school average. Homeschoolers in Tennessee, as a group, have average ACT scores at or above the ACT scores for all students.

AND YET… the Department of Education somehow BELIEVES that they can’t accept a homeschooling diploma because they don’t know what it represents. Given the incredibly wide variation of skills an achievement that can accompany a public school high school diploma, something about the pot, the kettle, and the color black occurs to me. Class…? Class…? Anyone…? Bueller…?

Colleges and universities across the country have faced this problem for years. What does a high school diploma mean, anyway? Their solution? Require all applicants to take the ACT.

Now, if the POST Commission on police officers and the Department of Human Services regs on daycare workers need to be revised to require ALL applicants to take an ACT test in order to validate and help agencies evaluate their high school diploma, that would be fine.

But DO NOT single out homeschool or church school graduates as if their high school diplomas were suspect, while the public school diplomas are not.

Homeschoolers have every bit as much data to substantiate the success of homeschooling as anything the public schools can point to. For the Department to automatically reject homeschooler’s diplomas is insulting. It could not possibly survive a legal challenge.

If the Department will not overturn their arbitrary and capricious policy, then homeschoolers should pursue remedies in the courts, or in the legislature.

But I am NOT willing to concede that homeschoolers should have to meet any additional testing burdens that are not also imposed on all other high school graduates. A homeschool diploma deserves every bit as much credence (I’d argue more so) than a public school diploma.

The Department of Education’s actions amount to an unsubstantiated, unprofessional, and unjustified attack on homeschooling.

The Department of Education has 1,000,000 students in public schools in Tennessee. Do they really want to pick this fight with homeschoolers?

- Rob Shearer
proud homeschooling dad
Director, Schaeffer Study Center
Vice President, Tennessee Association of Church Related Schools.

The Department of Education has so far succeeded in declaring all homeschoolers’ high school diplomas to be invalid.

Bill Hobbs has a nice summary of what the Department has done:

Cindy Benefield, the Tennesseee Department of Education Executive Director of Field Services, who oversees the state’s homeschooling office, recently declared that a diploma from a church-related school is “not worth the paper it is written on.” That is not just the idle opinion of one uninformed bureaucrat, but has become Department policy. Bredesen’s education commissioner, Tim Webb, told four legislators in April that until the legislature passes a law stating that the diplomas given by church-related schools are acceptable, they aren’t acceptable for certain kinds of employment.

And the state is now preventing people who hold diplomas from church-related schools or home schools from holding certain jobs. For example: a police officer in Roane County, who holds a diploma from a church-related school, then graduated the police academy with perfect grades, has been demoted and prohibited from continuing to serve as a police officer – even though he also graduated from the local community college. The Rockwood police officer has been forced to take a desk job until he takes and passes the GED because the Department of Education says his 2001 diploma from a church-related school is invalid.

The fallout goes beyond that one officer. Suspects he has arrested may be set free because he can not appear as a witness in the case because the state, which regulates the profession, says his diploma is invalid.

Church-related schools (CRS) have been issuing high school diplomas since at least 1975 – and until now, they’ve always been accepted, never been challenged. The bigger irony in this is that the Tennessee university system and the Lottery scholarships continue to accept CRS diplomas. It’s a fair assumption to predict that the Department of Education would like that practice to stop as well.

Rep. Mike Bell’s bill to reverse this stunning policy change escaped the House Ed Committee without being hijacked, but it is now sitting in the Calendar & Rules Committee where it may be quietly allowed to die. If that happens, the Department will have succeeded in disenfranchising thousands of high school graduates by bureaucratic fiat. There are upwards of 40,000 homeschool students in TN. Probably 3,000 of them graduate from high school each year. The Department’s actions not only invalidate the diplomas of this year’s graduating class, they retroactively invalidate the diplomas of thousands who have graduated over the past thirty years.

What’s happening is an outrage. We have a shortage of good police officers. We have a shortage of good daycare workers – but the Department of Education can’t stand it that someone out there might be getting an education outside their control.

- Rob Shearer
Director, Schaeffer Study Center

They shouldn’t be, but they are. That’s the headline in today’s Tennessean – though they’re not featuring the story nearly as prominently on their website as they did on the print edition front page. Here’s the opening of the story:

From President Bush to chambers of commerce, early education has been heralded like a miracle drug that better prepares youngsters for kindergarten and beyond.

So it came as something of a surprise to Gov. Phil Bredesen and some early-education advocates — including business leaders — this year when several Tennessee Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, expressed both ideological and fiscal resistance to expanding pre-kindergarten.

“These Republican lawmakers are out of step with the rest of the country,” said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

“This has been a bipartisan issue,” Doggett said. “Children are not red or blue. Early education is not about being a Democrat or Republican.”

At issue is Bredesen’s proposal to open 250 additional pre-kindergarten classrooms across the state, with an emphasis on broadening the program to middle-class children. Until now, Tennessee’s $80 million pre-kindergarten program has been geared to low-income children.

“That’s how it was sold to us,” said state Sen. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican who is chairwoman of the Senate Republican Caucus. She supports public pre-kindergarten for poor children.

She frames her deep concerns over including middle-income tykes in the context of a culture war, finding it “very, very disturbing” for the state to think it can do a better job instructing 4-year-olds than moms or dads can.

“The message of pre-K supporters is that teachers can do a better job than parents can,” Black said. “That goes too far for me, to say that parents are not adequate.

Kudos to State Senators Ramsey and Black for standing up to this misguided attempt to expand the insatiable public education trough.

There are any number of reasons why expanding Pre-K for all children in Tennessee is a bad idea.

First, pre-K programs have NOTHING to do with long-term academic success.  Three years ago, the Tennessee Policy Institute did an excellent, detailed review of the existing research on the effectiveness of Pre-K and Head Start programs. The results might surprise you. “In the long run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did
not attend Head Start.77″ And there’s this conclusion:

“Once the children enter school there is little difference between the scores of Head Start and control children…Findings for the individual cognitive measures—intelligence, readiness and achievement—reflect the same trends as the global measure…By the end of the second year there are no educationally meaningful differences on any of the measures.78

Finally the supposed successes of the existing program are being described this way:

“By the time 4-year-olds leave the program, they’re expected to recognize written letters and numbers, know shapes and colors, follow directions, raise their hands and finish homework.”

Friends, parents have been successfully teaching their children these things for centuries. Its part of being a parent. To imply that only children who have been enrolled in a pre-K program learn these things is insulting.

What the pre-K program REALLY is . . . is a giant jobs program for the educational unions. With declining enrollments in grades 1-12, they’re looking for ways to keep the dollars flowing and to justify the alarming number of administrative positions.

The sad, but cynical truth is this: the goal of the public education system is not to educate children but to keep the dollars flowing to the education bureaucracy and the education bureaucrats.
These objections cannot be overcome by the demagogic rhetorical trick of proclaiming that the opponents of Pre-K hate kids. Its precisely the opposite. Its because we love our children that parents don’t want to surrender them to the government-run, factory, monopoly school system.

- Rob Shearer
Director, Schaeffer Study Center
Publisher, Greenleaf Press

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