Athletic Eligibility: Struggling To Raise the Bar

When superintendents push for higher standards, they often confront a muscular sports establishment by Paul Riede

When a handful of parents in the Ashland school district in eastern Massachusetts complained that the academic requirements for student athletes were too high, Superintendent Richard Hoffmann thought it would be a passing storm.

After all, Ashland is a small, academically strong district about 30 miles west of Boston — hardly a hotbed of rabid sports boosterism. Surely it could expect its high school athletes to maintain a 70 average.

Hoffmann soon discovered how wrong he was. He found himself in the middle of a highly contentious debate with teachers urging him to maintain the district’s academic standards but many parents pushing the other way.

A Higher Threshold
For a decade, the district required the 70 average for athletes — a higher threshold than the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association standard that many of the state’s schools follow. That standard has no minimum GPA, merely requiring that students don’t flunk more than one major subject during a marking period.

Parents began asking why their athletes had a higher academic hurdle to jump than those in competing school districts. And suddenly an issue that had been far down on the superintendent’s list of concerns shot up to No. 1.

“You talk about the budget and there are five people in the audience, and you talk sports and there are 20,” he said. “I couldn’t stop the momentum.”

The result was a very public disagreement between himself and the majority of his school board, which finally voted 3-2 to suspend the district’s higher standard for sports eligibility.

“We’re all about raising standards, and I was afraid the headline would be ‘Ashland is lowering standards,’ and actually it was,” Hoffmann said.

Contentious Opposition
The issue of athletic eligibility has put school leaders across the country in a similar bind. Should they insist on high academic standards for athletes as part of their overall push to boost student achievement? Or should they maintain minimal standards to allow marginal students to play sports — sometimes their primary motivation for coming to school at all?

As Hoffmann found out, the debate can turn contentious fast, pitting the aggressive academic imperatives of No Child Left Behind against a district’s sports establishment — the most potent emotional and economic force in many communities.

In most states, school administrators on the side of raising standards for athletes are on their own. A blue-ribbon commission on high school athletics convened in 2004 by the National Association of State Boards of Education found that questions of academic eligibility — along with issues involving questionable recruiting practices and “extravagant” benefits bestowed on players — have been virtually ignored by state education officials.

“Most policymakers have been willing to leave it alone, but you just can’t do that anymore,” said Michael Hill, deputy executive director of the NASBE and lead staff person on the commission.

Local school boards are feeling that leadership vacuum. Hill said concerns about high school athletics keep bubbling up from the NASBE’s members.

“It’s a drumbeat that our membership is hearing, that something is amiss,” he said.

The commission found not only a lack of state leadership, but a paucity of solid research on how sports and academics interact. It found credible studies showing that students who play sports generally do better academically than those who don’t. But it found virtually nothing that proved causation. In other words, does participation in sports help to improve a student’s academic performance, or are students who participate in sports simply higher achievers in the first place?

“There are just so many issues out there that we don’t know enough about,” Hill said.

To remedy that, NASBE has teamed up with the NCAA, the National Federation of High School Associations and USA Football to propose a three-year study of high school athletics. Hill said the National Football League has pledged a third of the $1.5 million needed for the study, and the association is looking for the rest.

Coaches’ Complaints
Meanwhile, most school districts are on their own. In many states, the absence of leadership from state education officials has left the field to statewide athletic associations, which generally set minimal guidelines.

If a school system leader wants to veer from those guidelines, it can be an uphill battle.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the district had maintained a higher standard than most of its surrounding districts for many years — requiring a GPA of 70 rather than 65. Coaches, concerned about losing top performers, complained to the school board in 2004, arguing that athletes should not be held to a higher standard than other students. A passing grade on the state’s Regents exams, after all, is only 65.

The coaches argued that interscholastic sports is an important motivator for kids who otherwise might drop out, especially in an urban environment. “We’re trying to let kids who struggle in some classes participate because athletics and academics go hand in hand,” said Dave Thomas, the Buffalo district’s director of athletics, physical education and health. “We want them all to have 80s and 90s, but that’s not the way it goes.”

The school board ended up compromising, reducing the qualifying grade to 65 in Regents-level courses but maintaining it at 70 in less-rigorous classes.

This year, the city’s high schools are facing a different challenge. James A. Williams, who came on board as superintendent in July 2005, has established 8th-grade academies districtwide, which require some 600 struggling early adolescents to spend an extra year catching up before entering 9th grade. The move has hurt some high school teams, where top freshman athletes can have an immediate impact.

Burgard Vocational High School, for example, had only about two dozen students on its usually powerful football team last fall, down from about 35. The team came in third in its conference, but it could have done considerably better, Thomas said. But because the students will retain four years of high school eligibility when they enter 9th grade this fall, the move has not caused a major protest from coaches, he said.

Williams, who earlier worked in other urban centers, said he intends to study the issue of athletic eligibility in the second year of his tenure. There appear to be too many students in Buffalo who could compete athletically in college but who aren’t qualifying academically to play at an NCAA Division I university, he said.

Data-Driven Reform
In Waterloo, Iowa, Superintendent DeWitt Jones was able to hold off a movement to lower his school district’s athletic eligibility standard, which he says is the highest in the state. Waterloo required a GPA of 2.0 for four subjects or 1.6 for five subjects. The state board of education wants to change the current state rule from simply passing four classes to passing classes in all subjects in order to participate in sports.

When coaches challenged Waterloo’s tougher standard in late 2003, Jones — following his mantra of “data-driven leadership” — appointed a committee of parents, coaches, school officials and others to study the matter. The committee found that of more than 3,000 students in both high schools, only 13 had been affected by the district’s eligibility policy.

Armed with that data, the school board decided to maintain its policy but increase tutoring and academic help for both athletes and other students. Student help centers were established at the high schools, complete with additional teachers and student tutors from the nearby University of Northern Iowa.

Jay Sales, principal of Sandusky Middle School in Lynchburg, Va., developed his own powerful data to help ratchet up standards in his district’s middle schools. But he also ran up against powerful forces at the high school level, where he says “sports is absolutely king,” blocking further reform.

Sales discovered upon taking the helm at Sandusky, an academically struggling school with an even racial split, that his African American students were failing at twice the rate as his white students. He also found 70 percent of the students who played sports were black.

He put those data together and developed new guidelines for participation in athletics. His middle school had been following the Virginia High School League guidelines, which require students to pass five classes. Because most students took seven courses, that meant they could flunk two and still play.

Sales got his school district’s permission to pilot new standards at Sandusky: Students could not participate in sports if they were getting F’s in any subject, and grades were checked every six weeks. If students failed to meet the standard, they were kicked off the team in mid-season and sent to mandatory study sessions. Moreover, students who did not complete homework assignments were barred from practice.

“The first year we lost our starting quarterback and our starting running back,” Sales said. “Then people realized we weren’t cutting corners anymore. … We took the best athletes we had and basically said, ‘You’re disqualified.’ ”

The school’s powerhouse football team went 10-6 that year, a subpar season for Sandusky. But students soon learned the system, Sales said. By the end of that first year, 70 percent of the school’s athletes were passing all four of their state Standards of Learning tests, up from 40 percent before the new guidelines kicked in. Athletic participation remained high, and in the next two years the football team went undefeated.

“We let students know: If you participate, we will control your study life,” Sales said. “For kids who really want to play, they’ve been playing their whole lives and they’ll do almost anything to play.”

After three years, the district applied Sandusky’s program permanently to all three of its middle schools. But it made little effort to move the standards up to the high school level.

“The high school administrators kind of jumped up and said, ‘We don’t want to change the policy,’” Sales said.

Sales, a former high school athletic director, says the power and prestige of high school coaches and sports boosters can make eligibility standards almost impossible to change at that level. He said highly successful football or basketball teams at some schools are such big moneymakers they can fund both lesser sports and programs outside of sports, including after-school clubs and computer labs. No one wants to rock that boat.

That leaves it to the state bodies, typically the state board of education or the state activities association, to take the lead.

Pumping Up Standards
Leaving eligibility practices up to the states has its own perils, of course. Jones, who fought to maintain Waterloo’s tougher standard, now finds himself opposing elements of a new law recommended by Iowa’s state board of education. The law would bench students if they were failing any subject, even in mid-semester — a measure Jones sees as unnecessarily harsh.

“The state’s plan grades the journey, not the results of the journey,” he said.

Bruce Howard, communications director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which serves athletic associations in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., said state politicians are becoming increasingly involved in athletic eligibility questions and other issues that have traditionally been left up to the state associations. He thinks that’s a bad idea.

“I’m not sure that they’re the most knowledgeable people to make those kinds of decisions,” he said. “Obviously we believe our state associations are the ones who should run these activities.”

In East Baton Rouge, La., Charlotte Placide wanted to attack the eligibility issue at the local level when she took over the superintendency of the 46,000-student district in late 2004. Within a few months she was pushing to raise the standard to require a 2.0 GPA — above the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s standard of 1.5. Her school board was behind her, but her coaches and some of her top administrative staff advised her to slow down, fearing the higher standard would put the district’s athletic programs at a competitive disadvantage.

Placide, a former high school valedictorian and volleyball team captain, knew students could excel in both sports and academics. But she also knew the kind of resistance she could face. So she couched the argument in terms that would be hard to dispute.

“I said I would like to meet anyone who would choose an extracurricular activity over a student’s academic success,” she said. “I think that message got out there very well. … Under No Child Left Behind, why should we allow a grade point average of 1.5? What parent is going to say in public that they don’t want their child to meet higher standards?”

Even so, a committee Placide formed to study the matter came back with a go-slow approach, which Placide and the school board accepted. The standard for participation in sports and other extracurricular activities will be lifted incrementally to 2.0 by 2009. In the meantime, Placide has asked her schools to strengthen their tutoring programs and put together a system where coaches and club sponsors are kept up to date on the academic status of all their students.

So far, she said, there has been little outcry from parents.

“This could get a little more controversial as the GPA standards rise,” she said. “I hope not.”

Ken Jenkins, the district’s student activities director, acknowledged that although he is fully implementing the new policy, he and many coaches are still conflicted about it. Their greatest concern is that their teams will be hurt because districts with lower academic standards will be able to field more athletes.

“Some of the high school coaches are saying, ‘We’re not playing on a level playing field, and some of the kids we’re trying to save are the very ones we’re losing,’” he said.

On the other hand, the district is now delivering a clear message to its students about the importance of academics.

“A lot of these kids are really gifted in sports and they think that’s going to get them where they want to go in life, and they don’t realize a little academics will have to go into that,” Jenkins said. “I’m sort of torn. I’m like 50-50. Here we are using these student athletes for purposes of making our school look good and winning a state championship, but we’re not preparing all of them for the next level.”

The Proper Signals
Sales, the middle school principal in Lynchburg, said that’s the kind of soul-searching educators and coaches should be embracing in school districts and statehouses across the country.

“I’d like to see a public forum on a national level,” he said. “It’s about more than athletics. It’s about changing a mindset.”

George Gardner of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University agrees. He said keeping eligibility standards low hurts the athletes in the long run and gives the wrong message to the rest of the school.

“You’re really getting into dangerous water when you’re talking about lowering standards for the lowest common denominator,” he said. “We think the burden should be on the school to educate these students rather than to ratchet down the standards so the kids can meet them.

“To let somebody skate through — to what end? What happens when the season’s over? What happens when the student’s four years of sports are over? Has the school really helped the kids in any long-term way? We doubt it.”

Paul Riede is an editor and former education writer with the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: priede@syracuse.com