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.
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."
Dr. Martin says those newspapers weren't looking very hard. "With all the patients I see, I've never met a fan of no-pass, no-play," she says. Her specialty is ADHD students, a group she believes no-pass/no-play hurts disproportionately. She remembers the op-ed pages of newspapers in 1984 when Texas was debating the new education-reform idea that Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot was pushing. Most editorials and letters, she recalls, didn't like it, but Mr. Perot at that time had cachet.
Schools send a message, Dr. Martin says: "If you're good at mathematics, then you're better than the person talented in music or sports. Once people get that message, once it becomes part of their core being, it's difficult to get rid of. It can destroy a whole life." Some educators argue that extracurricular activities are as important as core classes for developing the whole student, because they build teamwork and camaraderie the classroom cannot.
Dr. Martin wants the Texas no-pass/no-play law reformed but is not optimistic that one-size-fits-all state mandates will change: "When you're working with individual kids and individuality is not taken into account, that bothers me. Something is wrong with the education system."
Meanwhile, Mike Sansone, now an avid blogger in Iowa, has been wrapped up in a fiery debate over a no-pass/no-play law in that state that is scheduled to go into effect next month. Mr. Sansone has an idea for reforming no-pass/no-play that would help future Ricky Lopezes: He calls it "no-pass, no-practice."
Rather than barring from extracurricular activities the students who fail a course, he would send to mandatory tutoring those who had failing marks at progress-report time. Those students would have to miss practice for extra tutoring until grades came back up.
Mr. Sansone says that if, as a consequence, an athlete did not learn new plays in time for Friday night's game, he might sit on the bench-but he would not lose contact with the team and drift off. A no-pass/no-practice system would never ban players from extracurricular activities but would show the school's commitment to tutoring that would help them improve.
"Our educators must be leaders," Mr. Sansone says. "To put it in biblical terms, we have to go get the sheep and bring them back to the herd"-meaning that schools should make an extra effort to help students catch up, and should not merely abandon them via no-pass/no-play mandates. But no system like "no-pass, no-practice" yet exists.