Tennessee – High School to College & Careers


College and Career Readiness

Tennessee’s college- and career- readiness standards define the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in postsecondary study or careers. The state implemented the Tennessee Diploma Project (TDP) in 2009 as part of an initiative to raise academic standards and better align high school curricula with postsecondary expectations. To receive a regular high school diploma, all students must complete a 22-credit curriculum and, beginning with the graduating class of 2018, complete the ACT or SAT in their junior year of high school. Students who choose to retake a college-readiness exam (ACT or SAT) in their senior year can do so free of cost on a specified state testing date, regardless of socioeconomic status. Through the Tennessee Response to Instruction and Intervention Framework (RTI2) schools, at all grade levels, are directed to use data from a variety of sources to develop Early Warning Systems (EWS). The data from the EWS is used to identify students in need of skills-specific interventions, remediation, re-teaching and enrichment. The goal is for every student to graduate from high school ready for college and career.

College and Career Planning

High School Graduation Requirements 

Course and Diploma Requirements for Current Seniors

Subject Credits Required Courses Substitutions
English 4


English II

English III

English IV

AP, IB, or dual enrollment English courses or Advanced Composition

Mathematics 4

Algebra I


Algebra II

Additional higher-level course

AP, IB, or dual enrollment math courses

Science 3

Biology I

Chemistry or Physics

Third, lab-based course

AP, IB, or dual enrollment science courses

Social Studies 3

U.S. History

Economics (1/2 Credit)

U.S. Government (1/2 Credit)

World History and Geography

IB or dual enrollment social studies courses

Personal Finance 0.5   Three years of Junior ROTC
Physical Education and Wellness 1.5    
Foreign Language 2 May be waived by the local school district under certain circumstances.  
Fine Arts 1 May be waived by the local school district under certain circumstances.  
Electives 3 Three units from: Math and Science, Career and Technical Education, Fine Arts, Humanities, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate. Students who waive foreign language or fine arts requirements must take additional elective units  
TOTAL 22    

Graduation with Distinction

Students graduate with “state distinction” when they attain a “B” or better grade point average and accomplish one of the following:

  • Earn a nationally recognized industry certification
  • Participate in at least one of the Governor’s Schools or ALL State musical organization
  • Be selected as a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist
  • Score a 31 or higher on the ACT Composite Score
  • Earn a three or higher on two Advanced Placement (AP) exams
  • Successfully complete the International Baccalaureate Programme
  • Complete at least 12 semester hours of postsecondary credit

Assessment Requirements

Tennessee administers at least nine regular End of Course (EOC) exams as part of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) : English I/II/III, Algebra I/II, Geometry, Biology, Chemistry, U.S. History & Geography. Exam results count for 25 percent a student’s final course grade. Passing the EOC exams is not required in order to graduate from high school. To obtain a degree, all students in grade 11 must take either the ACT or SAT. Beginning in 2017, all high school students will be given a U.S. Civics test. However, a passing grade is not required to receive a regular diploma.

Accelerated Learning Options

Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment opportunities allow high school students to earn postsecondary credit by enrolling in and successfully completing a postsecondary course. Students in these courses are enrolled at the postsecondary institution and pay tuition and fees associated with the course. The state, through the Dual Enrollment Grant Program, provides financial assistance to cover tuition costs for the courses. The state is currently working through changes to the specific funding amounts. 

Local and Statewide Dual Credit

There are two types of dual credit opportunities in Tennessee. A local dual credit course is a high school course (taught at the high school by high school faculty) that is aligned to a postsecondary course. Students are able to receive postsecondary credit by successfully completing the course and passing an assessment developed and/or recognized by the credit-granting postsecondary institution. The statewide dual credit courses are high school courses with accompanying challenge exams created by Tennessee secondary and postsecondary faculty work groups. The work groups reviewed existing high school course standards and the aligned postsecondary course to determine the additional learning objectives that students need to know to show mastery of the postsecondary material.  Students who meet or exceed established exam cut scores earn postsecondary credit.

Early and Middle College High Schools

The early college high school model is designed to allow students to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate degree or two years of credit toward a bachelor’s degree. Tennessee has two early college high schools in Memphis that are part of the national Early College High School Initiative. There are similar schools in Nashville, Knoxville, and Johnson City, with several other districts looking to build these types of programs. 

Advanced Placement

The Tennessee Department of Education is using statewide research to develop and implement several new initiatives to expand student participation and success in Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Additionally, the Tennessee General Assembly has allocated funds that can be used towards AP expansion. The Tennessee State Department of Education (TDOE) also uses funds from a federal grant program, along with subsidies provided by the College Board, to reduce the exam cost for economically disadvantaged students from $89 to $18.

Early College Admission

Twelfth-graders with a 3.2 GPA and minimum 22 ACT score can pursue early admission. The freshman coursework taken at the participating college or university substitutes for courses that the student would have needed to graduate from high school. 

Dual Admissions

High school graduates may apply to a community college and state university simultaneously through a dual admissions partnership. These structured paths guarantee students automatic admission to a four-year institution once they satisfy associate degree requirements at the community college. Through the Tennessee Transfer Pathways (TTPs), a student attending community college can identify an academic path and specific courses that can be transferred to a four-year institution and applied toward a bachelor’s degree.

Career and Technical Education (CTE)

High school students may choose a career concentration in one of 16 career clusters to fulfill the three-credit “elective focus” graduation requirement. The state has revised CTE course standards and programs of study to reflect higher expectations for students and a clear alignment to postsecondary and workforce needs.

Postsecondary Admissions 


There are two public postsecondary systems in the state – the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and the University of Tennessee (UT). The TBR system includes six universities, 13 community colleges, and 27 colleges of applied technology. The UT system includes three universities and a health sciences center.

The state implemented the Tennessee Diploma Project (TDP) in 2009 as part of an initiative to raise academic standards and better align high school curricula with postsecondary expectations. To receive a regular high school diploma, all students must complete a 22-credit curriculum and, beginning with the graduating class of 2017, complete the ACT or SAT in their junior year of high school.

Effective January 2014, the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) agreed to grant freshmen admission to applicants who have completed the regular high school diploma curriculum. Freshmen applicants must provide a high school transcript showing graduation from high school and passing scores on the Proficiency Examination. They also must present Enhanced ACT, SAT scores. Universities are directed to use these scores in keeping with recommended best practices in admissions, advising and placement. Community Colleges have open enrollment policies, but may use ACT and SAT scores in the advising and placement process.

Tennessee Regular Diploma Curriculum



Course Requirements



Units in English and American Literature



Algebra I and II, geometry, and fourth math

Students must enroll in a math course each school year



Biology, chemistry or physics, and a third laboratory course

Social Science


One unit each of U.S. and World History

Half units of economics and government

Foreign Language 


Districts may waive this requirement to expand number of courses in elective focus

Fine Arts


Districts may waive this requirement to expand number of courses in elective focus

Phys. Ed & Wellness



Personal Finance


Three years of JROTC may be substituted for one-half unit of Personal Finance if the JROTC instructor attends the Personal Finance training

Elective Focus


Options include math and science, career and technical education, Fine Arts, Humanities, and AP or IB courses

Total  22  

Students who are admitted without the minimum high school unit requirements are required to remove deficiencies in a “timely manner.” Students must have high school diplomas or pass the GED test with scores that meet institutional requirements. Individual institutions determine admission criteria, including required GPAs and ACT or SAT scores.

The University of Tennessee admission requirements also incorporate the core high school graduation requirements into their curriculum requirement. Students must submit high school transcripts and either the ACT or SAT for consideration of admission to the University of Tennessee.

TBR policy directs universities to use test scores for advisement and as one metric in placement decisions. Community colleges have open-enrollment policies, but these institutions may use ACT/SAT scores for advisement and placement purposes. 

Postsecondary Placement


Board of Regents

System policy has approved placement cut scores for ACT and SAT subtests. Students scoring at or above the cut score are exempt from Learning Support (i.e., developmental education).

ACT/SAT Placement Cut Scores

Readiness Area



Writing 18 490
Reading 19 500
Math 19 500

Institutions require students who score below the cutoff in writing, reading, and/or math to enroll in co-requisite learning support courses. Also, institutions must address in their Learning Support Framework how to support students who score 12 or below on any ACT subtest. The system advises institutions to partner with local school districts to deliver learning support to at-risk students identified through placement assessments administered prior to senior year.

All TRB institutions are directed to form partnerships with their local high school district to develop early intervention systems and provide learning support to at-risk students identified through assessments prior to their senior year in high school.

Stand-alone learning support may be provided only to support non-degree seeking students whose program does not require college-level math, English or reading. An institution must have strategies to address learning support for students with ACT subject scores (or equivalent scores on other assessments such as the SAT, PSAT, etc.) of 12 or below.

University of Tennessee System

The system’s three undergraduate institutions set minimum ACT and SAT cut scores for entrance into specific English and math courses. If a student’s scores are high enough, they have completed an appropriate course with a C or better, made a passing score on an AP or CLEP exam, or pass the approved online math placement exam with an 80% or higher, they qualify for the first math course required for their major. If not, they are directed to take a pre-requisite course. All three institutions require students with low ACT English or SAT Critical Reading sub-scores to take an additional course or participate in a supplemental writing lab.

UT-Martin requires students who score below 21 on the ACT English and/or ACT Math subtests to enroll in the lowest applicable college-level courses.

Postsecondary to High School Feedback Reports

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), in collaboration with ACT Inc., publishes annual feedback reports. The reports provide information on recent high school graduates enrolled in college, subdivided by district, school, college, and postsecondary system. These reports, which are limited to outcomes from Tennessee’s ACT-tested public and private high school graduates, track college enrollment, first-year college GPA, average ACT courses, and median course loads.

THEC publishes an annual higher education fact book, which provides detailed information about higher education enrollment and persistence in the state.

State Financial Aid

Tennessee awards financial aid based on academic merit and financial need. Beginning with the Class of 2015, Tennessee high school graduates will have the opportunity to enroll in two years of tuition-free education as part of a new scholarship called the Tennessee Promise. The Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it will cover the remaining portion of tuition and fees after all other aid is applied (excluding loans and work study). The scholarship funds can be applied toward tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges of applied technology, as well as two- or four-year institutions that offer an associate degree.

The Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship (TELS) program awards HOPE Scholarships to recent high school graduates who attend approved Tennessee public or independent institutions. Students must have a score of 21 on the ACT (or 980 SAT) or a 3.0 weighted high school GPA. Students must maintain a 2.75 college GPA to renew the HOPE scholarship for the first 48 credit-hours and a 3.0 GPA to renew after 72 credit-hours. HOPE scholars also may qualify for supplemental awards, including the General Assembly Merit Scholarship and the need-based ASPIRE Award.

The HOPE Access Grant is awarded to students who earn a 2.75 weighted high school GPA, score an 18 on the ACT (or 860 on the SAT) and have an annual household income of $36,000 or less. While the HOPE Access Grant expires after one academic year, students can begin receiving the HOPE Scholarship if they maintain a 2.75 GPA for their first two semesters of college. The state also provides several other grant opportunities for specific student subgroups through the TELS Program.

Tennessee graduates who qualify for the Federal Pell Grant and have an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) under $2,100 can receive additional aid through the Tennessee Student Assistance Award. Funding is limited and awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. The Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant, also part of TELS Program, is available to Tennessee residents who attend one of the state’s 27 colleges of applied technology.

Special Thanks

We would like to thank the staff at the following agencies for their assistance in carefully reviewing and confirming the accuracy of the policies and programs described in this document:

Tennessee Department of Education

Tennessee Higher Education Commission


College for TN
Tennessee Board of Regents
University of Tennessee
Tennessee Department of Education
Tennessee Higher Education Commission
Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation
TN College Access
TN Promise