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Playing for keeps

Sports | No-pass/no-play rules may be a hurdle in the way of the real goal: student achievement

Issue: "Bird flu," June 10, 2006

When Mike Sansone coached high-school baseball in Salinas, Calif., players came and went, but one young man stuck in his mind: a promising centerfielder named Ricky Lopez.

As Mr. Sansone explains, Ricky, a leadoff hitter with a roll-off-the-tongue name that seemed destined for the Jumbotron, missed a Spanish test because he was looking for a part-time job to support his recently disabled father. Besides having scholarship potential and speed to round the bases, Ricky spoke Spanish fluently. "He would have aced the test if given the opportunity," Mr. Sansone says.

In Ricky's case, though, the missed test led to an F in Spanish, and because of a district-wide no-pass/no-play rule, he was kicked off the team. Mr. Sansone still doesn't understand. "If anything we should have rewarded him for making a tough, smart decision," says the former coach, now a copywriter.

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What puzzles Mr. Sansone is why academic performance should determine extracurricular eligibility-but that's what happens in 17 states (including California, Texas, Florida, and most of the South) where no-pass/no-play rules kick thousands of students off sports teams and other after-school activities. And with the school year ending this week or during the last two, many of the kicked-off will not be back in the fall.

Victoria Martin, a psychiatrist in Richardson, Texas, who specializes in treating ADHD students, says many students drop out because they "get discouraged, and if they'd had extracurricular activities, they would have stayed involved." She says some of her patients point to the day they were kicked off the team or barred from the marching band as the start of lifelong problems. Jim Richard, a football coach in Louisiana for 25 years, says none of his failing players regained their eligibility.

No-pass/no-play supporters say the rule helps students set the right priorities, but teens who need to work or have learning disabilities are some of the victims. Some students who have the ability to succeed in school buckle down when grounded from sports, but others give up: Critics of no-pass/no-play say the law takes away the best glue for binding certain students, particularly higher-risk ones, to school.

Supporters of no-pass/no-play say the data typically show no increase in dropout rates for states with the law-yet these states nonetheless have some of the nation's highest dropout rates, which vary depending on who compiles the stats. For example, the Texas Education Agency reports a low annual dropout rate of 2 percent for the state, but one outside group, Intercultural Development Research Association, a nonprofit organization that tracks education stats in the state, says that over 30 percent of Texas students actually fail to graduate from high school.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics provides dropout data for states that tabulate rates according to its standards: 12 of the 17 no-pass/no-play states do so. In general, these data show no clear correlation of no-pass/no-play dropout rates, but eight of the 12 are in the bottom 40 percent of states measured, and five of those-Arizona, Louisiana, Georgia, New Mexico, and Illinois-are among the eight worst states.

Academic studies of no-pass/no-play laws are also not definitive. There is little evidence that no-pass/no-play laws encourage students to take easier classes, or reduce the number of honors-course enrollees. There is even less that it raises the GPAs of students involved in extracurricular activities or lowers dropout rates.

Research does show that GPAs of student athletes are higher than the average for non-athletes even without no-pass/no-play laws. One 1995 Department of Education study concluded that participation in extracurricular activities and success "are strongly associated" because participants had "better attendance, higher levels of achievement, and aspirations to higher levels of education."

So what do all these stats add up to? Sometimes the ground-level effect is clearer than upper-level math. Failure rates for school sports teams in Austin, Texas, show that no-pass/no-play hits hard in schools of all kinds, but particularly those in poorer neighborhoods. Austin's Lanier High was unable to field freshman football teams for two of the past four years, and six of the area's 14 high schools have canceled freshman basketball teams in that four-year period, some with team-wide failure rates of 80 percent.

Aside from H.G. Bissinger's chapter in Friday Night Lights on Wilfred Bates-the Texas math teacher who failed his school's star running back and angered district administrators determined to get around no-pass/no-play in court-the media's take on the law has lacked inquisitive rigor. In 2004, Texas newspapers ran stories on the law 20 years after its controversial passage. Most concurred with a summary by The San Antonio Express-News: "Today, critics are in the minority."

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