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Arkansas Backs Off Extracurricular GPA Requirement

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Four years ago, when Arkansas state school board members passed a "no pass, no play" policy requiring secondary school students to maintain a C average to play sports or take part in extracurricular activities, they thought they had found the ideal incentive to get students with less-than-perfect grades to hit the books.

After the new rules were adopted, school board members, administrators, teachers, and, especially, coaches waited for the good grades to start rolling in. And they waited. And waited.

Finally, when it seemed that not only were the low achievers not achieving at higher levels, but that the lowest-performing students who were disqualified from after-school activities were dropping out of school altogether, one lawmaker decided to do something about it.

State Sen. John E. Brown, a Republican and former college president, has been working since last spring to get the state school board to amend the new grade-point-average requirements. Arkansas school board members have since agreed to abandon the 2.0 policy.

"The punitive system was not working," he said of the 2.0 requirement. "There's been no upsurge in student performance. All that can be shown is a dramatic decrease in the number of students taking part in school activities."

With its C requirement, the Arkansas policy is particularly strict, but since the early 1980s, many school districts and a few states--Alabama, New Mexico, Texas, and West Virginia--have adopted "no pass, no play" measures, according to the Kansas City, Mo.-based National Federation of State High School Associations.

Today, as college officials continue to debate the merits of the tougher academic requirements set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, some secondary school policymakers are rewriting their rules. In Texas, for example, the legislature last year changed a mandatory six-week sidelining period for students--the equivalent of one grading period--to three weeks in cases where students can demonstrate improved grades.

Data From Arkansas

A recent study commissioned by the Arkansas education department and the Arkansas Activities Association backs Sen. Brown's arguments against the minimum-GPA rule.

The study, released earlier this year, reported that an estimated 41,000 students--22 percent of all Arkansas secondary students--were ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities during the 1995-96 school year because of the 2.0 requirement. Data collected by the department showed a sharper decrease in the number of boys eligible for school activities than girls and a sharper decrease in the eligibility of African-American students than any other racial group.

"The GPA policy may have encouraged some students to perform better academically, but overall it has had a devastating effect on student participation in interscholastic activities in Arkansas," the report concluded. "However noble its intent, [the policy] has served to exclude students from participating, especially in sports."

Even so, state board member Martha Dixon voted against changing the state's policy. "What is school for?" she asked. "If I had a child in school, and they didn't make a C average, they wouldn't be involved in those activities. Lessons should come first."

Proposed changes--which the state board will be voting on this fall--would allow Arkansas students who don't make a C average to take part in school activities if they attend remedial tutoring programs, have no more than three unexcused absences each semester, stay out of trouble both in and out of school, and demonstrate academic progress over the school year.

Board members voted 6-5 this summer to eliminate the state's GPA requirement and to put the related policy changes into effect next spring, pending this fall's vote. Board Chairman William B. Fischer said that it was a tough decision for board members to make.

"People have this intuitive belief that these requirements are a good thing, but there's no data that supports that," he said. "The policy had the best intentions, but we learned that it did more harm than it helped."

Misuse Feared

Board member Edwin B. Alderson Jr. has some concerns over how strictly the new policy will be interpreted by school districts. He voted for the policy change, but said he wants to make certain that the tutoring component is "very strict and very focused."

"I don't have a problem in changing the regulations to the extent that it helps well-meaning, hard-working students," he said. "But I fear that some schools will misuse the new rules in order to have a great sports team."

The board will decide in coming months how to monitor districts for compliance.

Art Taylor, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, contends that backing away from straight GPA requirements is not a lowering of standards, but rather an attempt "to work with the whole kid."

"Yes, we need high academic standards. But you just can't say, 'Whoops, you didn't make it,'" he said. "Attention and energies need to be focused early on in teaching kids consequences" of low grades, he continued, and giving them the resources--good teachers, counselors, and tutors--to help them achieve at higher levels.

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