Warren Drake, the new superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, caused a stir earlier this month when he proposed lowering the minimum grade-point average students need to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities from 2.0 to 1.5.
The proposal is set for final approval when the School Board meets Thursday, but it looks like a done deal. The board voted 9-0 in favor of the idea on Aug. 6, with several board members shifting from opposition to support.
The unanimous vote was a victory for Drake, and it will mean that hundreds of teenagers in Baton Rouge will have a chance to participate in extracurricular activities they were barred from before. The move, however, has provoked a lot of public criticism that it amounts to lowering standards.
“I don’t see it as that,” Drake said. “I see it as engaging more kids.”
A former coach, as well as high school teacher and principal, Drake points to the well-documented benefits of participation in extracurricular activities, as well as the uplift to schools as a whole as more students become involved.
“The better your school climate is, the better your school is,” Drake said. “Kids need to have what we call the ‘high school experience,’ and being in the classroom is only a part of that experience.”
One misperception Drake said he’s heard repeatedly since he released his proposal is that teachers will calculate student grades to make it easier for students to get higher grades. Drake disputes that, insisting that the change will not affect “classroom rigor.”
At Glen Oaks High School, a school that has struggled academically and has lost students in recent years to neighboring schools, the change appears mostly to be welcomed as a way to get more teenagers invested in the school. It’s also a school small enough where every kid counts when it comes time to field a team.
“Lowering the GPA keeps them off the street and somewhere their mamas know where they are,” said Niakatia LeBlanc, an English teacher at the school whose son, Cameron, plays on the football team.
“If we don’t have them, we can’t do nothing for them,” said Willie Williams, the girls’ track and field coach.
Football coach Donald Clark said his experience is that the students who fall short of the 2.0 rarely return to the team, but band director Bobby Bowman said he’s had students come back because of their desire to play in the band.
Dorothy Gathers, a 2013 graduate who works with the dance squad, worries students will slack off.
“It makes it hard for them to stay motivated to keep up,” Gathers said.
Lowering the minimum GPA cuts against the prevailing academic trend to raise minimum requirements. College entrance requirements have steadily climbed in Louisiana.
To play college athletics, the NCAA currently requires a 2.0 GPA, but starting in fall 2016, incoming college freshman will need a 2.3 minimum GPA to play college athletics. Some states already require 2.0 GPAs or higher. Some states, however, have fewer requirements than Louisiana.
In July 2005, East Baton Rouge Parish jumped out ahead of most school districts in the state and approved increasing its minimum GPA from 1.5 to 2.0. At the time, more than 2,200 middle and high school students in Baton Rouge were in danger of losing eligibility if they didn’t raise their grades, amounting to about 1 out of every 10 students.
Ten years later, only Caddo and Jefferson parishes have a 2.0 GPA as their minimum, according to a survey conducted by Drake’s staff. Everyone else has stuck with the 1.5 GPA, a threshold the Louisiana High School Athletic Association set in the 1980s. Despite periodic legislative pressure to increase it, the threshold remains in place in a modified form — students now must maintain at least a C average to remain eligible for sports, which districts typically define as going as low as a 1.5 GPA.
East Baton Rouge’s insistence on a 2.0 GPA has been a sore spot, especially with coaches who have had to bench players who would have had no problem playing at neighboring high schools.
Charlotte Placide, who served as East Baton Rouge superintendent from 2004 to 2009, made increasing the minimum GPA to 2.0 a key initiative. At the time, the school system had dozens of schools labeled “academically unacceptable,” the forerunner of the F label, or were in danger of earning that label.
In increasing to a 2.0, she made a bet that the desire of students to play baseball or join Key Club would propel them to try harder in school and thereby increase overall student achievement across the school district.
“We believed, and I still believe, that students will rise to the level of what we expect them to achieve,” Placide said Thursday.
The change didn’t happen immediately. The minimum increased over a three-year period, and Placide said she also involved the coaches in designing how it would work.
“We phased it in,” she said. “We didn’t just stop, drop and roll.”
Placide said she made sure an extensive early warning system was set up so coaches and club sponsors would know ahead of time when a student’s grades put him or her at risk of being ineligible. She recalls complaints about the paperwork involved in the monitoring but not about the standard itself or any adverse effects from it.
“Trust me, the street committee was always busy, and it never got back to me that we needed to go back to the old way,” Placide said.
What’s unclear 10 years after the shift to 2.0 is whether the change worked.
Drake has not delved too deeply into that question. He acknowledged he’s basing his proposal to go back to a 1.5 minimum GPA primarily on his personal experience as an educator.
Drake, however, has given the School Board copies of several research studies showing the many positive effects of participating in extracurricular activities. Students who are involved in activities outside the classroom typically have higher grades, better attendance, score better on college admission tests and are less likely to drop out. And those positive effects continue after graduation.
The research, however, does not address the effect of raising or lowering eligibility standards on such outcomes.
Drake points to the school system’s graduation rate as evidence the 2.0 GPA eligibility standard didn’t work as planned.
“If our graduation rate had gone up 10 points, I would say it’s working, but from what I see, I don’t see it’s working,” he said.
When first calculated in 2006, the school system’s four-year graduation rate was 66.4 percent, virtually unchanged from the 66.2 graduation rate from the class of 2014. The rate has fallen and later risen during the time, bottoming out at 56.8 percent in 2009, Placide’s last year as superintendent. School officials, however, have argued in the past that the rates during those early years were artificially low in part because of the difficulty of tracking students who came and went during the years after Hurricane Katrina.
Placide said she does not recall any internal evaluations of the 2.0 shift that would answer whether it worked.
“We were going to make it work,” she said. “We weren’t looking for it to fail.”
She said she was focused more on making sure individual students were given the help they needed to cross the higher bar.
David Masterson, longtime athletic director and football coach at Northeast High School in Pride, said the higher standard has had perverse effects.
“These kids were not all of a sudden attaining a 2.0,” Masterson said. “What they did was transfer to another school system.”
One tactic students have used to get a higher GPA has been to take easier classes and put off harder classes for later, something that might leave them short of necessary credits to graduate or go on to college.
“They did not attain and push themselves harder,” Masterson said. “What they did is they got smarter in their scheduling.”
He said the negative effects were not as apparent early on for a variety of reasons, including that the higher standard was phased in, students who fell short were given more chances to catch up and all grades were calculated at the time on a 10-point scale.
The state later prohibited the use of a 10-point scale in public schools and instituted a scale where you don’t receive an A until you score at least a 93 out of 100. Some private schools, however, still use a 10-point scale, which serves to boost the GPAs of their athletes, Masterson said.
Research on the effect of high school eligibility requirements is limited.
In a 1996 essay, O. L. Davis Jr., a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin, noted how anecdotes dominated debates over that state’s controversial “No Pass No Play” rule. The rule specified that high school athletes could not have any failing grades and still play. While research on its effects was nonexistent, the state’s legislature approved the rule in 1984 and partially rolled it back 12 years later.
“The research cupboard on this policy is bare,” Davis wrote.