Scholarly screw on sporting life

January 20, 1995

College presidents and athletics directors in the United States voted last week to tighten already tough academic standards for student athletes, disappointing critics who argued that they discriminated against blacks and the disadvantaged.

Academic standards for athletes have been a burning issue for 12 years since higher education experts resolved to reform a system which allows student athletes to attend college without doing much in the way of study.

The decision threw one bone to the opponents of the new standards -- postponement of their implementation for another year.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association meeting in San Diego, California, resolved to insist that freshman athletes have a 2.0 average in a high-school core curriculum and a combined score of more than 700 on the Scholastic Assessment Test (the US equivalent of A levels). Without such scores they cannot play sports. These requirements will be raised after 1996.

A 2.0 grade-point average in high school is a fairly modest achievement. Most self-respecting students would want to have a 3.0 score. And a 700 SAT score is 200 points below the national average for college-bound school leavers.

But opponents argue that standardised tests are culturally biased. A group set up by the National Centre for Fair and Open Testing in Boston claims that previous rules eliminated 45 per cent of black students who would have graduated if they had been allowed to enrol."That compares with 6 per cent of otherwise-qualified white students who would have been ruled ineligible," said Peter Schonemann of Purdue University.

Twelve months ago college basketball coaches threatened to boycott games in protest at what they considered a lack of opportunity for disadvantaged athletes.

The rules have resulted in 1,150 fewer black college athletes. But the number who graduated rose by around 150, an increase of 6 per cent.

Those in favour of higher standards believe they will ensure that young disadvantaged athletes are able to graduate. Stories of young men spending college life on the basketball court only to be thrown on the scrapheap at the end of four years without a degree or anything to show for their efforts are legion.

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