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Haslam's free tuition plan viewed as incentive

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's program to cover a full ride at two-year colleges for any high school graduate could be an incentive for students to perform better in school after a report shows most 12th-graders aren't prepared for college, education experts say.

Results released Wednesday on the National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card, show slightly fewer than four out of 10 students nationwide have the math and reading skills needed for entry-level college courses.

Last week, NAEP released the results of testing in which Tennessee and 12 other states voluntarily participated. Twelfth-graders in those states were tested last year from January to March.

The average score of Tennessee students in reading was 282, which was lower than the national average of 287 for public school students, according to the results.

In math, Tennessee 12th-grader scored 145, compared to 152 nationally.

David Driscoll, chairman of the governing board that sets policy for NAEP, told The Associated Press that students aren't always as focused as they should be and that programs like Haslam's provide incentive to perform better.

"Our worry is that there's a lot of apathy, and they're not as focused as they should be," he said. "So I think programs like that that provide incentives are tremendous."

Haslam signed the measure into law Monday.

Called "Tennessee Promise," the plan is a cornerstone of Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign to improve the state's graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 in order to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.

After graduation, students who choose to attend a four-year school will be able to do so as juniors. Higher education experts say Florida, Mississippi and Oregon are considering creating similar programs.

Haslam said by phone Wednesday while traveling to one of his signings that he hopes his program "changes students' perspective on what's possible in their life."

"I'm convinced that if more students think ...'I can go to school beyond high school,' then they're going to take school more seriously throughout every grade," he said.

Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan agreed.

"I think it changes the conversation for sixth-graders and seventh-graders and eighth-graders because it's not about 'will we be able to go to college, it's we know we can so we better be prepared,'" said Morgan, who oversees six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology.

Last year, NAEP's assessment of Tennessee students in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math showed the state leading the nation in academic improvement.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said those students have been exposed to Common Core education standards and other courses that allow them to take higher levels of subjects like math and science, "and the 12th-graders haven't."

By the time those fourth- and eighth-graders are seniors, Haslam says their scores should still be high.

"I look forward to that test four years from now," he said. "Some of the kids that are having the higher standards now will see those results."