NCAA Decision -- Test Scores Do Not Measure Merit

University Testing

Culminating a more than decade-long campaign seeking justice for student-athletes, a federal judge in Philadelphia has struck down the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) test score-based initial eligibility rule, Proposition 16, as racially discriminatory and not educationally necessary. Though that decision has been stayed pending appeal, the message is clear that non- validated uses of results from the SAT and ACT to make high-stakes decisions, such as determining university admission or scholarship awards, conflicts with Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.


The court's ruling came in Cureton v. NCAA, a class action lawsuit which developed out of research and advocacy conducted by FairTest, the Black Coaches Association (BCA), and civil rights organizations. The non-profit Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) brought the case on behalf of several named student-athletes as well as the broader group of African Americans who were denied equal opportunity by the NCAA's rule.


Under Proposition 16 (and its predecessors, Prop. 42 and Prop. 48), students enrolling in colleges with major sports programs had to exceed certain SAT or ACT cut-off scores as well as meet specified grade and course requirements in order to be eligible for interscholastic competition and for athletic-related tuition aid.


In a strongly worded decision, Judge Ronald Buckwalter found the test score rule "has an unjustified disparate impact against African Americans" and concluded the "racially adverse impact caused by the SAT cutoff score is not justified by any legitimate educational necessity." He specifically noted that "The NCAA has not produced any evidence demonstrating that the cutoff score used in Proposition 16 serves, in any significant way, the goal of raising student- athlete graduation rates."


Judge Buckwalter's ruling coincides with arguments made by NCAA critics who claimed the test score requirement excluded proportionately many more otherwise-qualified African Americans than whites. FairTest and other advocates had long pointed out that the NCAA ignored the work of its own researchers who documented the huge, adverse racial impact from the rule and concluded that it was not educationally justified (see Examiner, Fall/Winter 1995-96 and Spring 1998). Advocates also noted that varsity athletes had higher college graduation rates than non- athletes even before the first test-score based rule was adopted.


FairTest played a central role in the long-term struggle to force NCAA reforms. A mid-1980s newsletter first exposed an internal NCAA study demonstrating the severe disparate impact on African Americans of the then-new test score-based eligibility rules (see Examiner Spring 1987). Working with the BCA and other allies, the issue was repeatedly raised at NCAA conventions, but reform proposals were defeated (see Examiner Winter 1994-95, Fall/Winter 1995-96, and Winter 1996-97). A substantial public education effort also was made, with hundreds of stories about the negative impacts of the rules appearing in major newspapers and on national television. Much of the funding for FairTest's leadership of this campaign came from the McIntosh Foundation, which sponsored an independent commission to review NCAA data (see Examiner, Winter 1994-95)


Only after other forms of advocacy failed to budge NCAA decision-makers was the decision made to seek legal action. TLPJ took on the case at no-cost to the plaintiffs and provided excellent representation through staff lawyer Adele Kimmel, Director Arthur Bryant, and cooperating attorney Andre Dennis. Their lawsuit was filed early in 1997 (see Examiner, Winter 1996-97) and ably avoided procedural hurdles created by the NCAA, which claimed it was not subject to civil rights statutes because it had no public funding. The court found that the NCAA's sponsorship of a foundation that received an annual federal grant and the fact that virtually all of its member institutions received taxpayer dollars meant that the association was not above the law.


While pursuing a legal appeal to minimize potential monetary and public relations damages, the NCAA is hoping to quickly put new initial eligibility requirements in place to avoid further conflicts with Title VI. Most likely is a "sliding-scale" rule which avoids any fixed SAT or ACT cut-off and allows students with higher grades to qualify with lower test scores. Also possible is a system which does not rely on the SAT and ACT at all. The NCAA already requires incoming athletes to have posted grades of "C" or better in specified high school core courses and to make satisfactory progress toward a college degree by passing academic subjects at a normal pace. Neither of these rules was challenged by the lawsuit even though the NCAA's arbitrary procedure for defining courses as "core" has outraged many educators and policy-makers.


FairTest will continue monitoring the NCAA response to the court ruling to ensure that "fair play" is extended to all student athletes. There is also the possibility that African American athletes excluded from participating in sports at the most well-known colleges could sue for personal damages.