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Thursday, February 28
Updated: March 1, 6:21 PM ET
NCAA ponders lowering test-score standards

By Tom Farrey

The student had the high-school grades to qualify to play college basketball, but the standardized test scores were a different story. He easily gained the necessary number in practice tests, and his teachers considered him plenty smart, but try as he might, he kept coming up short when the ACT was given for real. The best he could do was a 16, one point short of the minimum required by the NCAA for freshman eligibility at the time.

Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett went from high school to the NBA when it became apparent his grades would make it difficult to qualify academically to play in college.
His name was Kevin Garnett, whose academic deficiencies ended up changing the mindset of the next generation of players.

"Before 1995, kids were thinking about going to college," said Tom Konchalski, a longtime recruiting expert from New York whose job includes evaluating whether players will academically qualify. "They were more focused on meeting the NCAA initial-eligibility standards."

Now, many of the nation's best prep players dream of skipping college ball altogether, encouraged by the success of players like Garnett, who seven years ago became the first high school player in two decades to go straight to the NBA. Sometimes they make the leap, robbing the college game of marquee talent, but more often they don't -- and find themselves scrambling to get their college credentials in order at the last minute.

For some of those prospects, achieving the NCAA green light soon could get easier. The governing body plans this year to consider significantly reducing, or even eliminating, the minimum SAT or ACT score required to play as freshmen. Currently, the NCAA determines eligibility by using a sliding scale that weighs grade-point average against a standardized test score, with 820 on the SAT, or its ACT equivalent, as the rock bottom.

Given the national controversy over the value and fairness of standardized tests, key NCAA leaders are stepping carefully to avoid the kind of public backlash that could derail any adjustment in cut scores. But they say they have broad, if tentative, support to move toward a model that shifts more of the emphasis to high school grades in determining the eligibility of athletes.

"I'm really sensing in the Division I-A community that this is what we should do," said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for membership services.

The new SAT and ACT cut scores, if there are any, are being worked out by a special advisory committee made up of academic consultants. The NCAA Division I Management Council expects to consider a formal proposal in April, with a final vote by the board of directors in October on whether to enact the standards.

Average SAT scores
Division I athletes score better on the SAT test than the general population, although some groups are closer to the minimum 820 score on the NCAA's sliding scale:
Athletes in all NCAA sports other than football and men's basketball 1,122
White athletes in all NCAA sports 1,110
All NCAA athletes 1,094
All college-bound white students 1,082
All college-bound students 1,020
Football and men's basketball players 1,009
Black athletes in all sports   936
All college-bound black students   859
The new criteria would be in place for all athletes entering college in the fall of 2003, if all goes as planned.

"Everyone, including the board and (college) presidents, wants to fast-track this thing," said Charles Harris, chair of the NCAA management council.

That doesn't sit well with some educators who have gotten wind of the initiative.

"The NCAA regulations are a joke and a fraud already," said William Dowling, a Rutgers English professor and member of a national faculty organization, the Drake Group, pushing for academic reform in college sports. "To have an 820 SAT is the rough equivalent of a wide receiver having a 40-yard dash time of 7.5 seconds."

Last year, the mean SAT score of college-board students nationally was 1,020, according to the College Entrance Examination Board. The 200-point gap between that figure and the NCAA minimum means that athletes who barely qualify already have a tough time competing with their peers in high school, Dowling and others argue.

The Knight Commission, a blue-ribbon panel of college presidents and prominent sports officials, lamented in a report last June that athletes are often admitted to schools where they do not have a reasonable chance to graduate.

"I think the entrance standards should be similar to the student body," said Tom McMillan, a Knight Commission member, former Congressman and once a basketball star at the University of Maryland and NBA. "If a youngster doesn't belong in college, he doesn't belong in college."

NCAA data suggests that athletes in some sports are having trouble making it through college. While the graduation rate of all Division I athletes remains steady at 58 percent, comparable to the general student body, the figures lag for the revenue-producing sports of football and men's basketball. The gap is most pronounced for African-American athletes in those sports, especially basketball, where just 35 percent of freshman recruits graduate from the same school within six years. The number is at least partially reflective of the recent surge of underclassmen players who have left college early to play professionally.

The NCAA Academic Consultants concede that any diminution in the cut scores probably won't help graduation rates. But they aren't sure it is going to hurt, either -- and they contend it addresses the criticism that standardized tests are racially biased. Forty percent of black college-bound students, athletes or otherwise, do not achieve as much as an 820 on their SAT, compared to 20 percent of white students, according to the consultants.

The quality of the high school classes, and the grades received, are a better predictor of whether an athlete has a reasonable chance of graduating from college, said Harris, who also serves as commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, made up of historically black colleges. "The work product that we saw from the academic consultants confirm that (argument)," he said.

According to that group's research, athletes with a 700 SAT score but a 3.0 high school GPA show a 45 percent probability of graduating from college. Meanwhile, athletes who enter with a 2.5 GPA and 820 SAT graduated at a rate of only 38 percent. In effect, athletes who barely qualify to play as freshmen are doing worse in school than those who must sit out their first year because of inadequate SAT scores.

The research comes on the heels of a college football season in which several of the so-called "partial qualifiers" put a human face on the equation. The NCAA allows those athletes to earn back a fourth year of eligibility if they graduate in four years, as a reward for their work in the classroom. Among those who did just that last year were Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El, Toledo tailback Chester Taylor and San Diego State tailback Larry Ned, all stalwarts on the field.

Critics argue that that it's unlikely athletes with 700 SATs will perform as well in class if the NCAA adjusts its standards to make them full academic qualifiers. The carrot of the extra season would be gone and their first year of school would be filled with games, diverting their attention from academic demands.

The NCAA, regularly criticized for exploiting revenue-producing athletes, risks further embarrassment with any adjustment that could be perceived as a lowering of standards, Maryland athletics director Debbie Yow said.

"There's a huge P.R. nightmare here," Yow said. "Imagine the headlines. Schools will be signing athletes with 480 SATs to national letters of intent. Do you think that will convince the public to feel good about the NCAA?"

Harris said the NCAA membership is more likely to agree to an adjustment of SAT cut scores than a total elimination of the standard. And even at that, Lennon said, an athlete with a lower SAT score would have to compensate with a GPA higher than the current maximum of 2.5 recognized by the NCAA's sliding scale.

"We would extend the sliding scale, if you will," Lennon said. "As an example, a 620 (SAT score) would require a student to have a 2.75 GPA to be eligible." Other concepts discussed at the NCAA Convention in January would allow a student with a 3.0 GPA to enter with an SAT score between 400 and 600.

The NCAA Academic Consultants also have recommended raising the high school core course requirement by one, to 14.

Yow, whose football and men's basketball teams are among the best in the nation, said she objects to the initiative in part on competitive grounds. She fears battles with her university's admissions officers over that blue-chip athlete with an SAT score 500 points below the campus average.

"It'll be disastrous for academically competitive schools like Maryland because our institution won't accept students with scores of 650 or 700, and other schools will," she said. "The current minimums level the playing field."

A fiery debate is sure to follow in the coming months. But however the legislation evolves, the discussion so far has been notable for what it hasn't included -- any mandate to raise NCAA entrance standards. It's been a common cry over the past two decades. The notion that athletes would pay more attention to their high school academics if the bar was lifted was the rationale behind the creation of the original set of standards, Prop 48, which was followed a decade later in 1995 by Prop 16 and the introduction of the sliding scale.

Now, it's more a question of fairness. And the fate of the next Kevin Garnett.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com.

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