Drake’s proposal to lower GPA required to participate in school sports causing stir; research limited on impact of imposing higher standards _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Glen Oaks High School football team members take the field for warmups Thursday. Glen Oaks is one of many schools that could have more students eligible to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, if the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board approves lowering the minimum GPA, from 2.0 to 1.5, that students need to be eligible for such activities.

Seniors in high school who want to play sports at one of the country’s 350 Division I colleges next year will need better grades than ever, namely a minimum grade-point average of 2.3, equivalent to a high C.

In Louisiana, those same students, with few exceptions, can and will continue to be able to play high school sports with much lower grades: a minimum 1.5 GPA, barely a C average.

The gap is wider yet.

In Louisiana, all classes are included in calculating a student’s GPA; higher grades in easier classes can offset lower grades in more difficult courses. To play sports at the collegiate level, only core courses in subjects such as math and English are counted, so students can’t take easier electives to boost their GPA.

The divergence between colleges and Louisiana high schools on this issue is likely to widen.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday is expected to approve a proposal to join most of the state’s high schools and lower its minimum GPA for sports, as well as all extracurricular activities, from 2.0 to 1.5. That would leave Caddo and Jefferson parishes as the only public school districts in the state that require a higher minimum GPA for playing sports.

The debate in Baton Rouge has divided roughly into two camps:

  • Those who say high school athletics should be widely available as a benefit that can keep at-risk kids from dropping out or losing interest in school.
  • Those who see raising academic standards for athletes as a way to improve schools in general and to make sure students have the chance to attend college to play sports or to attend strictly for academic reasons.

The NCAA, for its part, does not weigh in on such local battles, but its experience with increasing standards is instructive. The research division of the collegiate association has amassed a huge database of high school transcripts as well as the grades those students get when they start college.

Tom Paskus, the association’s principal research scientist, said student athletes who manage to get into college with less than a 2.0 GPA rarely make it to graduation.

“A student athlete who really struggles in high school faces a difficult road to being able to compete at a four-year school,” he said.

The Advocate interviewed a handful of local athletes with college prospects. They say they are aware of the increased NCAA requirements that take effect next year.

“I’m trying to get there,” said Courtlen Walker, a senior and a football player at Woodlawn High in Baton Rouge.

Walker said he learned of the changes in February during an event at LSU.

“They told us how everything was going to change,” he said. “From there, I tried to see just what I need to do in every area to be ready.”

Taylor Holliday, a senior at Scotlandville High in Baton Rouge who plays basketball, said her coach and her parents have talked to her about the higher GPA requirement and she said she has the grades needed if she stays focused. She said the new rules will force student athletes to take their academics more seriously or they will lose out to students who do.

“Those who just think their talent will take them there will eventually hit a roadblock. Some of them quit,” Holliday said. “And when that happens the person who kept on working and has the grades has the chance to get picked up by a college.”

The students divided on whether 2.0 is a better minimum GPA than 1.5.

“I think it would help, because it would make people work harder,” said Anthony Drye, a basketball player at Broadmoor High in Baton Rouge.

Christopher Hayes, who plays basketball for Tara High in Baton Rouge, said a higher minimum GPA would help in getting some get into college, but that’s not a consideration.

“I think a 1.5 would help a lot more kids,” Hayes said. “They won’t have the grades to go to an NCAA school but that’s not what they need. It would be good for those kids to be part of a team.”

According to the NCAA’s most recent data, fewer than 6 percent of high school athletes end up playing in its three college divisions, ranging from as little as 2.6 percent of male wrestlers to more than 23 percent of female ice hockey players. Football is the most popular sport and very competitive. Only 6.5 percent of 1.1 million high school players make it to college, only 2.5 percent to a Division I football team.

Minimum grade requirements for high school or college athletics are a fairly recent phenomenon.

Louisiana set its own minimum GPA for high school sports at 1.5 in the early 1980s. That threshold has effectively remained unchanged since, despite periodic pressure from the state Legislature.

The NCAA set a 1.6 minimum GPA in the 1960s for incoming freshman athletes. It raised it to 2.0 starting in 1986 and raised it again to 2.3, effective 2016.

The premier collegiate association was reacting in part to news exposés of college athletes who could barely read. In the late ’70s, it conducted a study that found 42 percent of student athletes were graduating college over a six-year span.

Since then, the NCAA has focused increasingly on getting college athletes to graduation, and has some success to point to.

From 1984 to 2007, according to a federally mandated measure, the percentage of student athletes in Division I schools who graduate within six years has increased from 52 to 66 percent.

Student athletes who entered a Division I college in 2014 did noticeably better in high school than their peers who entered in 1994. They had collected an average of 18, as opposed to 16, credits in core classes and their average GPA increased over that time from 3.18 to 3.43.

“We’ve increased the core courses and the GPA requirement,” Paskus said. “Students have responded, and it has led to academic success.”

The NCAA also looks at test scores on college placement exams such as the ACT and the SAT. After analyzing which college athletes did well and which ones didn’t during their first year in college, though, the association elected to place twice the weight on grades, finding them a better predictor of success in college than test scores.

The NCAA found that students who entered with low grades, even it they had decent test scores, fell behind in college. Chances of graduating college improved for students who came in with at least a 2.3 GPA, which is why the cutoff was set there, Paskus said.

“Schools are (given incentives) not to bring in students with really high levels of academic risk,” Paskus said.

Under the new rule, colleges can still enroll student athletes who have high school GPAs between a 2.0 and a 2.3 but they will spend their first year as an “academic redshirt.” That means they can only practice with the team that first year and have to pass a sufficient number of courses to be able to play their second year.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Aug. 20, 2015, to reflect the correct gender when referring to Taylor Holliday.

Advocate sports writer Robin Fambrough contributed to this story.