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A Misguided Change on University Athlete Admissions

Until now, a high school student had to earn at least an 820 (the so?called "cut score") on the SAT exam, or a corresponding 68 composite score on the lesser?known ACT exam, in order to be eligible to compete in athletics at a Division I university. But a recent rule change by the Division I Board of Directors of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. eliminated the minimum score on national entrance exams for freshman athletes ? a terrible mistake.

Under the new rules, if a student's grade?point average in high school is 3.55 or better, he becomes athletically eligible at Division I universities, irrespective of his performance on the SAT or ACT exams.

The board's decision to eliminate the cut score was part of a larger and much?needed effort to raise academic standards for incoming student athletes. Unfortunately, the board failed to recognize the deleterious effects that doing away with the cut score would have on the weakest high schools throughout this country.

Moreover, the board willy?nilly took away the only basis that colleges have for ensuring a modicum of comparability among secondary schools. In short, the board has now ceded to the high schools themselves the authority to determine freshman eligibility at the collegiate level.

The problem is that grade?point averages are determined entirely by each student's high school. And it should come as no surprise that a grade of B in geometry earned at one of America's better high schools represents a level of achievement which is significantly higher than the same grade earned in the same subject at one of this country's weaker high schools.

As much as we might hate to admit it, the SAT and ACT exams are the only common standards we have for secondary education in the United States. When there is a cut score in place (and preferably a challenging one at that), athletes in every high school in this country are forced to learn something in class if they hope to enroll and compete at a Division I university. But once the cut score is removed, the teachers in our weakest high schools come under enormous pressure to give A's and B's to all athletes, whether or not such grades are merited.

If real academic standards were being enforced in all of the nation's high schools, I would be the first to urge that we drop the use of SAT and ACT scores as the basis for determining athletic eligibility and rely instead on high school grade?point average. But the reality is that no such standards exist at our worst high schools. In these schools, the greatest gift we can give to teachers and students, and the only bulwark we can provide against wholesale grade inflation, is the continued imposition of a challenging cut score for the SAT and ACT exams.

Steven B. Sample is the president of the University of Southern California, whose quarterback was awarded this year's Heisman Trophy.