Gender Bias in Proposition 16 and 48

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) use of test scores to determine freshman athletic eligibility means that female athletes have two strikes against them. Not only do women have access to fewer athletic opportunities and less athletic financial aid than men, they are also more likely to be disqualified from even competing for these slots. This discrimination is based not on women’s athletic or academic skills, but on biased tests that do not accurately predict their ability to succeed in college studies.

In fact, females have better grade point averages (GPAs) in both high school and college and graduate at higher rates than males; moreover, female student-athletes graduate at rates far higher than their male counterparts (67% to 53% for NCAA Division I student-athletes in 1996). Division I Female student-athletes are also more likely to graduate than their nonathlete counterparts, 67% to 59%. This gap existed before Proposition 48 went into effect in 1985 and remains today. The problem Props. 48 and 16 were ostensibly meant to address has clearly never existed for female student-athletes. Female student-athletes are more likely than their male counterparts to meet overall NCAA core course, GPA and test score requirements. However, of those who fail to meet the minimum requirements, females are more likely to be denied eligibility because of their test scores.

College Admissions Tests Are Biased Against Women

The SAT is designed and validated for just one purpose: to predict first year college grades, a task it does poorly. The test clearly underpredicts the abilities of girls: despite their lower test scores, young women earn higher grades in college than young men when matched for identical courses. Even the test-makers admit this problem exists. In 2001 (see 2001 scores), girls scored significantly lower than boys on the SAT in every racial and ethnic group, averaging 38 points lower (on a 400-1600 scale). The ACT also shows a gender gap: females’ ACT composite scores averaged .3 lower than boys’ (on a 36-point scale).

Double Jeopardy: Race and Class Bias

Women of color and low-income women are further penalized by class and race biases in the SAT and ACT. Wealth is one of the strongest predictors of SAT and ACT scores–average scores on both tests rise steadily with family income. In addition, average SAT scores for most minority groups in the US are lower than for white students. However, the NCAA’s own research shows that low-scoring student-athletes of color graduate at higher rates than low-scoring white athletes. Another recent study by the Educational Testing Service found that the SAT underpredicts more strongly for African American women than for women of any other race. Because of these factors, a female student-athlete who is also a member of a minority group, and/or from a poor or working class family, is less likely to meet the NCAA’s initial eligibility requirements–for reasons that may have nothing to do with her academic abilities.

Unfair Treatment of Female Athletes

Because standardized tests underpredict women’s success in college, applying the same cutoff score to both sexes amounts to having a higher requirement for female athletes. This differential treatment translates to fewer opportunities for women. NCAA data on 1994 Division I partial qualifiers shows that more than 70% of white women, black women, and black men failed to achieve full qualifier status because of the test score portion of the rule. In contrast, just over 50% of white males were eliminated by their test scores.

Title IX and Equity in Athletic Opportunity

Currently, women account for just over half of college students but only one-third of intercollegiate athletes. The NCAA’s biased eligibility rules will impede efforts to bring women’s athletic opportunities into parity with men’s in several ways. First, it will reinforce a common excuse used by those who oppose equal athletic opportunities for women. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights allows a school to demonstrate compliance with Title IX (the federal law governing gender equity in education) by showing that its athletic programs meet the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. Many universities with major disparities in the number of men’s and women’s sports opportunities argue that they do not need to remedy the situation because women are simply not interested in more athletic teams. The steady increase in female athletic participation since Title IX went into effect suggests that opportunity, not interest or talent, is the limiting factor. However, if the NCAA rules continue to rely on test scores which exclude women at higher rates than men, they will artificially narrow the pool of potentially interested female athletes.

Second, the NCAA’s initial eligibility rules will make it difficult to ensure racial equity in merging women’s sports, since women of color will be disproportionately excluded from new athletic opportunities. Men’s college athletics have been criticized for having a high concentration of people of color in a few sports while most other sports remain predominantly white. To avoid repeating this pattern, advocates involved in developing women’s athletics must challenge NCAA rules that stand in the way of bringing women of color into traditionally white sports.

Finally, as progress is made toward increasing the number of athletic programs for women, more and more female athletes will come up against the NCAA’s arbitrary requirements for initial eligibility. The issue of academic standards for athletes has traditionally been viewed as a men’s concern, in part because female athletes are currently a smaller, more select group which does much better academically. However, as the pool of female athletes expands to more closely resemble the range of students in men’s athletics, NCAA initial eligibility requirements will become an increasingly significant barrier for women.

Needed Reforms

NCAA Initial Eligibility Rules should be amended to make the use of test scores optional for students with an adequate high school grade point average, which is a more accurate measure of students’ academic ability.

If the NCAA is unwilling to stop using test scores, they should consider following the example of schools, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that weigh test scores differently for men and women. At the very least, the NCAA should study the impact of its initial eligibility rules on female athletes, particularly women of color, before raising the minimum test score required for athletes to compete.