Chronicle of Higher Ed
July 23, 1999

NCAA Says It Can Show 'Direct Link' in Athletes' Test Scores and Graduation Rates


The National Collegiate Athletic Association says it has established a "direct link" between standardized-test scores and the graduation rates of athletes, according to a brief it filed in a federal appeals court.

The association hopes that the finding will persuade the court to overturn a March ruling by a lower-court judge, who found that the N.C.A.A.'s use of SAT and ACT scores in determining eligibility discriminates against black athletes.

Tai Kwan Cureton and three other Philadelphia-area athletes who were deemed ineligible for Division I sports because of their low SAT scores had sued the N.C.A.A. under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race in programs that receive federal funds.

The N.C.A.A.'s eligibility rules, known in their current form as Proposition 16, use a sliding scale of test scores, in combination with grade-point average, to determine whether a first-year athlete can participate in college sports. Athletes must score at least 820 on the SAT or 68 on the sum of the four ACT components to be eligible to compete.

Proposition 16 and an earlier set of requirements, Proposition 48, were designed to deal with the perceived problem of athletes' coming to college, competing in sports, and drifting away without a degree when their eligibility ended.

Graduation rates for black and white athletes alike have improved under Proposition 48 and are projected to keep improving under Proposition 16, according to the N.C.A.A.'s research. The association also projects that graduation rates would drop under alternative eligibility rules, such as removing the test-score cutoff and extending the sliding scale to the lowest possible score on the tests.

The N.C.A.A. argues that its findings prove a substantive link between test scores and graduation rates, even though the tests were originally designed as predictors of performance only during the first year of college.

"If the College Board has never undertaken a massive longitudinal study of test scores and graduation rates, that doesn't discredit what the N.C.A.A. has done," the association's brief says. "The N.C.A.A. studies have demonstrated what the College Board has not."

The College Board, which sponsors the SAT, has published a statement calling test scores a valid predictor of graduation rates. A 1996 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than 60 per cent of students scoring over 900 on the combined SAT graduated within five years, while fewer than 50 per cent of those scoring under 900 did so.

The N.C.A.A. says its study demonstrates that it has a legitimate academic goal to protect in using test-score standards for its athletes.

"Because the ultimate goal of students attending college is to obtain a degree, any policy that increases graduation numbers and rates of a particular group of students does not discriminate against that group even if the percentage of those students entering college as freshmen declines," the brief states.

It adds: "Proposition 16 was adopted to alleviate a problem (low graduation rates) that disproportionately affected black student-athletes, and they will reap disproportionate benefits (increased number of graduates) under the rule."

"We think we've met our [legal] burden of necessity with this rule," Elsa Kircher Cole, the N.C.A.A.'s general counsel, said in an interview. "Then we have to show that the method we've chosen actually achieves that end. That's where we feel our own research comes in."

In their response to the brief, the lawyers for Mr. Cureton and the three other plaintiffs described the N.C.A.A.'s use of a cutoff score as arbitrary because it treats athletes with similar skills differently based on minute differences in test scores. They also argued that the association has never presented proof that improved graduation rates were the result of the test-score requirement itself. Graduation rates for non-athletes rose by almost the same amount as did those for athletes after Proposition 48 was introduced, the lawyers for Mr. Cureton noted.

The case, now before theU.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, will also turn on whether or not the N.C.A.A. is bound by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and other anti-discrimination laws that apply to institutions receiving federal funds. The lower court ruled that the N.C.A.A. does receive federal funds, if indirectly, because it controls the National Youth Sports Program, a not-for-profit organization that receives money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The court also said the N.C.A.A. was bound by Title VI because universities, which receive federal funds, have ''ceded controlling authority'' over their sports programs to the association. The N.C.A.A. maintains that it is entirely separate from the National Youth Sports Program, and that universities have ceded nothing to the association.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that the N.C.A.A. should be held liable under Title VI. So did the National Women's Law Center and other public-interest groups that support women's issues. The American Council on Education and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public-interest law group based in Sacramento, filed briefs supporting the N.C.A.A.

The appeals court is likely to hear the Cureton case in August or September, lawyers for both sides said.

Another lawsuit against the association is on hold in a federal district court in Philadelphia, pending the outcome of the Cureton case. Renee M. Smith is suing the N.C.A.A. for sex discrimination under Title IX, which bars discrimination at institutions that receive federal aid. As in the Cureton case, she argues that the N.C.A.A. is an organization that receives federal funds and thus should be bound by Title IX.

Suggs, Welch. "NCAA says it can show 'direct link' in athletes' test scores and graduation rates." Chronicle of Higher Education. 23 Jul 1999. For Fee$$