Opinion: Hamilton County’s improved graduation rates are nice, but ACT, TCAP scores are more telling about schools, students

Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / Jabari Besley talks with a friend on Saturday, May 20, 2023, after Brainerd High School's graduation at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium.
Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / Jabari Besley talks with a friend on Saturday, May 20, 2023, after Brainerd High School's graduation at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium.

The Hamilton County school district graduated the highest percentage of its students in nearly 10 years in 2023, state numbers show.

But is that a reason for celebration or concern because academic scores haven't kept pace?

State records show local high schools graduated 89.5% of their students earlier this year. That's the highest number of any year in the last nine, according to the state Department of Education website.

Nine schools — Central, Hamilton County Virtual School, Ivy Academy, Lookout Valley, Ooltewah, Red Bank, Sequoyah, Soddy-Daisy and The Howard School — had their highest graduation rates in those nine years

Four high schools graduated at least 95% of their students, and about half exceeded the state's average graduation rate.

Data for 2023 is not available for Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, Collegiate High at Chattanooga State, Signal Mountain Middle/High School or Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

However, more and more, education experts are playing down graduation rates as a telling achievement for a high school. After all, students may have satisfied the school's requirements for graduation, but whether they are prepared for college, for obtaining post-graduate certifications or for the world beyond high school is another matter.

Since all Tennessee students by law must take the ACT test in their junior year of high school, the results of those tests offer a better idea than graduation rates on how students in a particular school are doing.

ACT scores for Hamilton County students who took the ACT test during the 2022-2023 school year are not available yet, but comparing the change in scores from the 2017-18 school year to those in 2021-2022 offers a five-year snapshot of a school, and comparing ACT scores to graduation rates shows that some schools are graduating more students than others who may not be prepared for life after high school.

Of the 16 Hamilton County high schools for which 2023 graduation rates are available, only two schools — Ivy Academy and Soddy-Daisy — improved their ACT scores from the 2017-2018 school year to the 2021-2022 school year. Scores at the other 14 schools fell from .5 points to 2.6 points.

But since that 2017-2018 school year, 12 of the 16 high school improved their graduation rates. Over that time, graduation rates at Brainerd, Ivy Academy and Tyner dropped. Records weren't available for the 2017-2018 year for Hamilton County Virtual School.

If graduation rates were a significant marker in how high schools are faring, they would generally show the same characteristics annually at every school. In other words, if rates were up year over year at one school, they generally would be up year over year at all schools.

But that's not the case in Hamilton County.

Take Lookout Valley Middle High School, for example. Its 2014-2015 graduation rate was 94.9%. but then it fell to 83.8% in 2015-2016 and all the way down to 75% in 2016-2017. But since then, its rate has been between 93.8% and 98.5%.

But Soddy-Daisy's rate has been remarkably consistent, varying less than 6 points from 85.5% in 2014-2015 to 91.2% in 2022-2023.

And The Howard School has had a roller-coaster of rates, from a low of 63.1% in 2018-2019 to its nine-year high of 75.6% in 2022-2023.

Considering the ACT scores at those same three schools, Lookout Valley fell from a composite of 20 in 2017-2018 to 18 in 2021-2022; Soddy-Daisy climbed from 21.1 to 21.2 over those five years; and Howard dropped from 15.1 to 13.5.

It's true that someone with a high school diploma will find more open doors than someone without one, and that's what Tennessee Commissioner of Education Lizzette Reynolds wanted to emphasize with the recent release of the graduation rates.

"Earning a diploma and graduating high school is a milestone that unlocks so many opportunities for students as they begin their lives after K-12 education," she said in a news release. "I am thrilled to see Tennessee's graduation rate at a record high."

But we don't believe Hamilton County district administrators are fooled. While higher graduation rates look good and show improvement, they realize ACT scores and Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program scores will say much more about the schools and their students.

The local 2023 TCAP scores did show improvement both in proficiency rates and against the state averages. That's where the building needs to continue. Improved graduation rates are nice, but graduating students not ready for the world may do them more harm than good.

Upcoming Events