Are graduation rates in Tennessee what they seem?

Tennessee has been praised nationally for its high graduation rate while also maintaining rigorous graduation requirements for high school.

But it turns out, that’s not entirely true.

Graduation is a day of promise.

Graduation is a day of promise for many students.

A third of Tennessee students are receiving diplomas without meeting the state’s requirements, according to a new report by the State Department of Education.

During this week’s State Board of Education meeting, department leaders vowed to address the lapse.

“This couldn’t happen again,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday. “We’ve got some pretty drastic measures that we’re taking.”

The findings come as the state digs deeper to understand why Tennessee high school graduates struggle to transition to jobs or further education.

“This could explain some of our postsecondary success issues if kids are graduating without actually meeting graduation requirements,” said board member Wendy Tucker. “The requirements don’t mean much if kids don’t have to meet them.”

Students most often skipped out on requirements for required government and foreign language classes. White and minority students missed credits at similar rates, according to Chief Research Officer Nate Schwartz. It’s not clear how long the problem has persisted.

“This is the first year we’ve looked; this is the first year we’ve found it,” Schwartz said.

Reasons for missed credits included a lack of teachers in some subject areas, especially foreign language; data entry errors; and a dearth of school counselors.

The findings were included in the department’s “Seamless Pathways” report, released this week and detailing recommendations for preparing high school students for success after graduation. As part of that push, Gov. Bill Haslam told business and education leaders on Thursday that the state must step up its game in guiding high school students to college and careers.

“The finding that one-third of students are not taking the required core courses indicates a bigger issue — that students are not receiving sufficient guidance and attention when selecting their courses,” the report reads.

Tennessee’s rigorous graduation requirements were set in 2009-10 as part of the Tennessee Diploma Project. To graduate from high school, students must earn at least 22 credits, including four courses in English and math, three in science, four in social studies, and two in foreign language.

Education officials aren’t interested in solving the problem by easing up on graduation requirements.

“I think this question about how we get our students to actually meet the requirements we set before they graduate is a hugely important one,” Schwartz said. “The reason it matters is because we think our requirements actually set our students on a path for (success).”

McQueen said preventative measures include flagging missed credits to local districts while there’s still time for students to earn them.

The findings deflate a national narrative around rigorous graduation requirements, for which Tennessee was recognized in a national report this fall from Achieve, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization focusing on education reform.

“What’s impressive about Tennessee, is not only are you graduating kids who are more prepared (for college and career) than other states, you’re graduating many more kids than the national average,” Achieve chief operating officer Sandy Boyd said in November. “It shows that it can be done.”

This article originally appeared on Chalkbeat.org. Chalkbeat is an independent nonprofit news organization telling the story of education in America. Learn more.