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Court Rejects Test Scores as NCAA Eligibility Criteria

By Mark Walsh — March 17, 1999 5 min read

A federal judge last week invalidated the admissions-test portion of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s freshman-eligibility standards, based on evidence that the requirement has a disparate impact on black student athletes.

The March 8 ruling by U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter of Philadelphia was welcomed by many college coaches and educators who have viewed the test-score requirement as unfair to many student athletes.

But the decision raised fears among others that colleges would begin setting their own eligibility standards and return to past abuses in which students ill-prepared for higher education were admitted only because of their athletic talents.

“We are greatly concerned at this moment with the effect this ruling will have on the academic preparedness of prospective student athletes,” said Charles Wethington, the president of the University of Kentucky and the chairman of the NCAA Executive Committee.

The governing body for college sports asked Judge Buckwalter to delay the effect of his ruling while it is appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. The judge was scheduled to address the request for such a stay in a March 15 hearing.

Disparate Impact

The ruling came in the case of four student athletes who failed to meet the NCAA’s so-called initial-eligibility standards for freshman participation in competitive athletics.

First adopted in 1986, the standards were known as Proposition 48. The revised standards adopted in 1992, commonly referred to as Proposition 16, were at issue in the case. Under the rules, a sliding scale is used by which an athlete can qualify for freshman eligibility with a high school grade point average of 2.5 (out of 4.0) in 13 core academic courses, plus a minimum SAT score of 820 out of 1600 or a minimum ACT sum score of 68 out of 120. A student with only a 2.0 grade point average could still qualify with an SAT score of 1010 or an ACT score of 86.

Judge Buckwalter’s ruling does not disturb the NCAA’s GPA or core-course criteria. The latter requirement has its own detractors, who contend that the NCAA is interfering with the academic mission of high schools in how it decides which courses meet the “core” standard.

The lawsuit was filed by Leatrice Shaw and Tae Kwan Cureton, African-American track and field athletes at Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia who graduated in 1996 with GPAs of 3.5 and 2.8, respectively. But each failed to get the minimum test scores required by the NCAA. Two other black student athletes were later added to the case.

In a summary judgment, Judge Buckwalter ruled that “African-American and low-income athletes have been disproportionately impacted by Proposition 16 standards.”

Among prospective student athletes in 1997, 21.4 percent of African-Americans did not qualify, compared with 4.2 percent of whites, he said. The single largest reason for the difference was black athletes’ failure to meet the minimum test score, which the judge said was twice as stringent as the GPA requirement when viewed in terms of national norms.

“The court concludes that the NCAA has not produced any evidence demonstrating that the cutoff score used in Proposition 16 serves, in a significant way, the goal of raising student athlete graduation rates,” the judge said.

The disparate impact violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination in programs receiving federal funds, the judge held.

Momentum for Critics?

Although the judge did not base his ruling on the longstanding allegations of cultural bias in the widely used college-admissions tests, critics of the tests said it gave them new momentum.

“More and people are recognizing that the SAT, if used inflexibly, is a barrier for certain groups of students, whether for admissions or athletic eligibility or access to scholarships,” said Charles Rooney, a consultant to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based critic of standardized testing.

Elsa K. Cole, the general counsel of the NCAA, said she doubted the ruling would lead to any sweeping impact on the use of standardized tests in college admissions generally. “But it is an open question,” she said.

Barring a postponement of its effect, Judge Buckwalter’s ruling prohibits the NCAA from using the test-score component of its eligibility standards. Still to be determined is whether the lawsuit will be certified as a class action, which could result in remedies such as another year of athletic eligibility for student athletes who did not qualify as freshmen since 1996, when Proposition 16 took effect.

Adele P. Kimmel, a lawyer with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington group that represents the plaintiffs, said the group would oppose efforts to obtain a stay of the decision.

“This discriminatory rule has been in effect long enough,” Ms. Kimmel said. “By filing this motion to stay, the NCAA is suggesting that administrative considerations are more important than ending race discrimination. That claim is simply outrageous.”

Revisions Under Way

NCAA officials said that even while they appeal, they will work to draft new eligibility standards.

“The court has issued us a road map, basically, of how to meet the requirements of [Title VI] when we review any future initial-eligibility standards,” Ms. Cole said.

Another significant part of Judge Buckwalter’s ruling was that the collegiate athletic association could be sued under Title VI. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that the organization did not fall under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 merely because it collects dues from institutions that receive federal money.

But the high court’s ruling was narrow, and it left open the possibility that the NCAA could be subject to federal civil rights laws based on other factors.

Judge Buckwalter found two bases for subjecting the NCAA to Title VI: The group has effective control over a subsidiary that receives a federal grant, and member schools that are federal-aid recipients have ceded control over their athletic programs to the NCAA.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Court Rejects Test Scores as NCAA Eligibility Criteria