NCAA Rejects Reform Proposals

University Testing

Delegates to the 1996 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Convention narrowly turned back a proposal intended to diminish the harsh impact of Proposition 16, the new test score-based NCAA eligibility rule due to go into effect this August. At the January meeting in Dallas, Division I schools and conferences voted 163-161 to reject Proposal 18, a measure that would have helped minority, low-income and female student-athletes by expanding the definition of partial qualifier under Proposition 16 to allow more student-athletes to receive athletic aid. These partial qualifiers would not be able to compete their freshman year.


The surprising closeness of the vote and the intensity of the accompanying debate demonstrate that the NCAA's reliance on discriminatory standardized test scores to determine initial athletic eligibility still sharply divides the association s member schools. Despite efforts by the NCAA's leadership to focus attention on proposals to restructure the organization, the votes on initial eligibility produced the only true drama in Dallas.


Going into this year s convention, FairTest and a wide range of allies, including the NAACP, the Women s Sports Foundation, NOW, the ACLU and the Black Coaches Association, had built support for an even more fundamental modification of the NCAA's initial eligibility rules. Proposal 17, sponsored by the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, would have made standardized tests optional for most student-athletes. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, which looked at the impact of different NCAA eligibility criteria on a group of 1992 college-bound students, Proposal 17 and current NCAA rules eliminate similar numbers of higher-income students from eligibility. However, 30% more low-income student-athletes would have earned full eligibility under Proposal 17. Slightly smaller gains would have been registered by minority and female student-athletes.


The NCAA Presidents Commission strongly opposed Proposal 17 because the rule deemphasized standardized test scores. Moreover, the Commission refused to endorse even the more modest changes called for under Proposal 18. However, intense lobbying by FairTest and other critics of the NCAA s rules helped focus the attention of delegates and of the media on the fact that Props. 48 and 16 (see summary below), both of which rely on test score cutoffs, discriminate against minority student-athletes. According to the NCAA's own Academic Performance Study (APS), Proposition 48 would have excluded 45% of the African American student-athletes who entered college before the rule went into effect and who went on to graduate within 5 years. For white student-athletes, the figure was just seven percent.


The NCAA's APS also specifically recommended against requiring grades and test scores simultaneously, explaining that there is no scientific basis for relying on this type of double cut or conjunctive rule. At this year's convention, the head of the NCAA's Academic Requirements Committee repeated that assessment. Nonetheless, the association's leadership took a position against the only alternative to this type of rule. Faced with this heavy internal opposition, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference withdrew Proposal 17 in order to build support for Proposal 18. This proposal would have ensured that students who are full qualifiers under Proposition 48 remain at least partial qualifiers under the harsher Proposition 16. Unlike nonqualifiers, partial qualifiers can practice during their freshman year, and remain eligible for athletic aid.


FairTest, with the support of the McIntosh Foundation, and other opponents of the NCAA's rules, will continue to pressure the NCAA to heed the results of its own research. Meanwhile, student-athletes have already started to mount legal challenges to some facets of the NCAA's eligibility rules and are likely to contest the central element the test score requirements as Proposition 16 begins to take its toll.