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Reform Leaders Decry NCAA Requirements

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The academic requirements used by the NCAA to determine whether high school athletes are eligible to play college sports are thwarting education reform, a coalition of national education leaders has charged.

At a Jan. 10 news conference in Atlanta, the coalition urged the NCAA to "abandon its efforts to dictate course content for American high schools and halt its inappropriate reliance on the SAT and ACT." The group's lengthy "Call for Reform" also included a list of other proposed changes it says are needed to end what it calls an unwarranted interference in both state and local control of curricula.

"The NCAA has set itself up as the super school board in the sky," Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, said in a telephone interview last week. "They've frustrated the efforts of hundreds of caring and talented educators who are trying their best to improve schools."

Educators who "are sitting back and teaching the old-fashioned way," he added, "have no problems at all with the NCAA."

No Legal Authority

A spokesman for the Overland Park, Kan.-based National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs intercollegiate sports, last week defended its procedures for determining eligibility.

Brenda Lillenthal Welburn

At issue are NCAA requirements, in place since 1986, that require prospective athletes at Division I or II colleges or universities to have at least a 2.0 grade point average in 13 core academic courses and a minimum score on either the SAT or the ACT college-entrance exam.

The NCAA determines whether a school's classes fit into its definition of those 13 courses. High schools send the organization a description of their courses, and employees at its clearinghouse in Iowa City, Iowa, decide which classes meet the criteria.

The clearinghouse also reviews each high school athlete's transcript to see that it matches the list of approved courses.

High schools can appeal rejections from the clearinghouse, and students can seek a waiver if a course they have taken is rejected, but school officials say the process can take months. Students who don't meet NCAA requirements are not eligible to play college sports during their freshman year and lose all or part of their potential athletic scholarships. ("NCAA Revises Analysis of High School Courses," April 9, 1997.)

Joe Nathan

Members of the coalition include three national teachers of the year, author and education reformer Theodore R. Sizer, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and author Jonathan Kozol. At its news conference in Atlanta, where the NCAA was holding its annual convention, the group charged that the athletics organization imposes curriculum standards on high schools, "despite having no legal authority to do so."

'Final Arbiter'

They contend that the NCAA has become a barrier to "well-designed, award-winning new approaches to high school education by rejecting such approaches" and that it has used college-entrance exams inappropriately "to block thousands of otherwise qualified students" from receiving scholarships and playing college sports.

The coalition also charges that the NCAA's eligibility requirements have hindered or prevented class valedictorians, a National Merit scholar, and National Honor Society members from participating in college sports because it rejected as few as one of their high school courses.

"The NCAA, a private membership organization, continues to assert itself as the final arbiter of what constitutes a core course in America's schools," Brenda Lilienthal Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va., said in a statement. "Core-course determination is a fundamental policy that should be decided by ... elected or appointed boards of education."

CAA spokesman Wallace I. Renfro denied that the organization's requirements for academic eligibility are unfair or that they impede education reform.

"What we're doing does not run counter to education reform," he said. "In fact, the [NCAA's] Academics Eligibility Compliance Cabinet works regularly with academicians and athletic administrators to understand the changes" that reformers are instituting.

Slight Modifications

On the final day of its Atlanta conference, the NCAA board of directors approved a slight change to the evaluation process, granting high school principals the power to determine which of their courses meet NCAA requirements, but the NCAA retained final authority over that decision.

"The old system is not that different than the new," argued Charles Rooney of FairTest, a watchdog organization based in Cambridge, Mass. "The clearinghouse will review what high school principals submit, and if there are any suspicious [class] titles or any courses previously denied, those courses will get flagged."

Some observers warned that painting the NCAA as the bad guy may oversimplify the matter. They say that the organization's eligibility requirements are commendable, if imperfect.

"The question is, should there be academic standards for kids who go to college? And the answer is yes," said Art Taylor, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "Not all schools impose or enforce high standards, so the NCAA steps in."

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