By Lisa Fingeroot | The Tennessean
As Tennessee's high school seniors don cap and gown and graduate with tougher requirements than ever before, the honor cord may no longer symbolize years of hard work alone.
Mt. Juliet parent Nina Long found out the hard way what a difference one test score can make for a 2013 high school senior when her daughter came home crying over the news that she would not be an honors graduate.
Long's daughter will graduate with a lofty grade-point average of 4.268 after taking honors classes and Advanced Placement classes in high school. But the honor cord was lost because of her ACT science section score.
If one test score can outweigh four years of studying for top marks, "why did it matter?" Long asked. "Why work all that time?"
This year's crop of seniors is the first group subject to the stiffer graduation requirements of the Tennessee Diploma Project, adopted in 2008 in an effort to make all students college- and career-ready.
While creating tougher academic standards for all, Tennessee's State Board of Education also created new qualifications for honors grads. A student who meets college readiness benchmarks on each section of the ACT college entrance exam will be a state honors graduate.
The ACT benchmark scores are 18 in English, 22 in math, 21 in reading and 24 in science. About 16 percent of Tennessee high school seniors met all benchmarks last year, according to the ACT.
Graduating with honors was so important to Long's daughter that she took the ACT test four times but continued to fall just short of the mandated science score.
"She could take it one more time, but it's ridiculous at this point," Long said. "She worked hard and she was diligent. The important thing is diligence."
Every point counts
David Sevier, deputy executive director of the State Board of Education, said, "Those markers are there for a reason. Somebody is going to miss it by a couple of points. A couple of points on a test like the ACT is significant."
The required scores were chosen because statistics show that a student with those scores has a 75 percent chance of being successful in a college class, Sevier said. "They have a fighting chance if they take freshman biology. This is not a number picked from the sky."
The previous requirement for honors of a 3.0 GPA "was not much of an honor," Sevier said. "We thought, 'Let's get some meaning behind that.' "
Each Tennessee school district is free to create its own secondary honors system using different standards, he added. But a student must meet the state requirements to be recognized as a state honors graduate.
Most Middle Tennessee systems have included the state requirements within their own policies.
"To work that hard and not get the recognition, she's disappointed," Long said. "She was the only one in the school affected, and that makes it worse for her."
Long's daughter was among a group of seniors photographed for the yearbook because of her outstanding GPA. But she waited alone for 30 minutes while those with a few more points on a science test were photographed as an honors group.
Reach Lisa Fingeroot at 615-259-8892 or at LFingeroot@Tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaFingeroot.