As Superintendent Jim McIntyre proclaims it, "100-90-90-90" has been the "battle cry" of Knox County Schools ever since he assumed the post in early 2008.
Those numbers aren't test scores or evaluations. Rather, they are the school system's benchmarks for success in achieving culmination goals for each year's crop of approximately 4,000 high school seniors. The 100 stands for 100 percent student completion rate either with a regular diploma or the certificates that students with disabilities receive for fulfillment of their individualized special education plans. The three 90s respectively represent the percentage of this total who earn diplomas, the percentage of these graduates who take the ACT test that's generally required for college admission, and the percentage of these test-takers who score at least 21 on the ACT, a widely recognized measure of college preparedness.
Knox County's 3,217 high school graduates in 2007 fell more than 10 percent short of the mark, and fewer than half of them scored 21 or better on the ACT, representing an even bigger shortfall to be overcome.
Unlike the University of Tennessee, whose graduation rate has been stagnant, the Knox County school system has been making steady progress. Its graduation rate rose from 79.3 percent in 2008 to 81.4 percent in 2009. And while the state's official tabulation of the 2010 rate hasn't been received yet, McIntyre is confident it rose further by between 1 and 2 percentage points.
Remarkably, the two high schools that had been lowest on the totem pole—Austin East and Fulton—achieved much bigger gains. According to the school system's unofficial tally, AE's 2010 graduation rate rose to 82 percent from 75 percent in 2009, while Fulton's soared to 78 percent from 60 percent the year before.
At the same time, the number of high school seniors with 21 or better ACT scores jumped to 1,697 in 2010 from 1,500 the year before. That's still far short of the approximately 2,900 needed to satisfy the final 90 of the 100-90-90-90 goal, but McIntyre believes the more rigorous curriculum standards the state has recently adopted will accelerate further progress. Along with more stringency in all courses, these include a requirement that every high school student take four years of math, up from three, and two years of science (including chemistry or physics) in addition to biology, which had been the sole requirement.
"The rigor of the curriculum will absolutely help us in terms of the assessments that we see, " McIntyre says. "Our teachers have been working ever so hard in terms of their own professional development to assure that our students meet these higher standards."
There's been concern that higher standards might cause some lagging or struggling students to fall between the cracks, but McIntyre voices confidence that the school system is providing a foundation that will bolster their performance.
Among the building blocks:
• An intensive remedial reading program known as Excellence Through Literacy for deficient middle schoolers. "When I came here, about 25 percent of incoming ninth-graders were at least two grade levels behind in reading," McIntyre says. But as a result of their mediation, the school system's director of secondary instruction, Ed Hedgepeth, says, "I'd be greatly surprised if that number hasn't been drastically reduced."
• Individual learning plans for each high school student developed in close collaboration with a guidance counselor. "We're making that a comprehensive planning tool for our kids to say, ‘Here are the courses I'm going to take, the sequence and level at which I'm going to take them, and what support services I might need to make it work," McIntyre says.
• Small Learning Communities in which clusters of students are grouped with subsets of faculty for closer relationships. At Fulton, for example, groupings of 80 students are paired with the same four English, math, science and social studies teachers for both their freshman and sophomore years.
• An education resource center that's opening this fall at the Knoxville Center mall will offer more individualized instruction for students who are otherwise likely drop-outs. McIntyre envisions about 280 students being placed there with a faculty that can provide "everything that's needed for them to graduate successfully."
For all the emphasis on additional supports at the high school level, McIntyre stresses that these alone are not the totality of what's needed to achieve 100-90-90-90 or the mantra of his five-year strategic plan, which is Excellence for all Children. "It's not a high school issue; it's a K-12 issue," he says. "It's making sure we are preparing our students from very early ages, building a strong foundation with our birth-to-kindergarten, kindergarten intervention, and early literacy programs."
Hence, while the performance targets in his strategic plan envision continued steady progress toward the system's goal, they don't call for surpassing the 90 percent high school graduation rate until 2014 or reaching the higher bar of having 90 percent of them score 21 or better on the ACT until 2020. But I'd be surprised if many other large and diverse public school systems in the country have set the bar this high.