The sudden decision  by the National Collegiate Athletic Association last week not to raise the minimum standardized test score for athletic eligibility could keep up to one in four men’s basketball players from being benched, based on current players’ scores. NCAA leaders worried that the rule – one of several approved in fall 2011  but suspended or overturned since – would disproportionately affect minority and low-income students, who historically do not perform as well on such tests.
But some faculty members worry that the move could be a step backward, and question why the board is acting now.
“We certainly are cognizant of [the board's concerns], and we want to keep access for everyone academically qualified to get into Division I,” said Scott Benson, president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, which advocated for a higher minimum. But, he added, “I thought it was sort of a done deal…. I hope it’s a temporary suspension as opposed to a rejection of the concept in general.”
When college presidents emerged from a retreat with NCAA President Mark Emmert in the summer of 2011, they set in motion an “academic reform” agenda that made its way unusually quickly through the legislative process: By that fall the Division I Board of Directors had approved a fairly broad set of proposals to tighten eligibility standards and help ensure freshman athletes were really prepared to do college work.
Last week, the board, which includes 18 college presidents , reversed course on one of those proposals; instead of raising the minimum standardized test score on the sliding eligibility scale  to correspond with a newly raised grade point average requirement, the presidents decided to retain the current minimum. That means that students with the 2.3 minimum G.P.A. will only have to score at least a combined 900 on the SAT or a cumulative 75 on the ACT to be eligible for competition, rather than a 1080 on the SAT or a cumulative 93 on the ACT. (The NCAA uses a cumulative score for four sections -- English, mathematics, reading and science -- rather than the composite score of a maximum of 36 that is normally used to report ACT scores.)
It was "shocking" and “some pretty serious backtracking” on the part of the board, said Mike Bowen, co-chair of the steering committee for the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of faculty senates from Football Bowl Subdivision universities, which house the biggest sports programs. Last week's announcement has COIA members scratching their heads, Bowen said.
“The decisions that they passed in 2011 were a result of the research they had done,” Bowen said, adding that the board had sold the new rules pretty effectively at multiple meetings with faculty and others, where the general sentiment was that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing if athletes who couldn't make minimum standards had to sit out for a year. “If it seemed to be made under good faith, and they had in fact sold these changes as being productive, to backtrack at this late a date seemed strange.... It would be nice if the NCAA was a little more open about how they make some of these choices because it has a pretty broad-reaching effect.”
Back then, the board did support a more stringent requirement, as recommended by the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance, a working group formed after the retreat and chaired by University of Hartford President Walter Harrison. But the requirement its members decided on when they approved the rule was too stringent, said Harrison, who supported a less steep increase in the test minimum.
“At the time, I knew that there were consequences to this that I thought weren’t all that good – that is to say, there’s a huge impact on minority students,” Harrison said.
Of course, the fact that minority and low-income students fare worse on standardized tests is widely known and well-documented – it’s not an idea that came to light between October 2011 and now. Rather, as the other eligibility changes came into place and the presidents studied the idea more, they became concerned that in addition to not necessarily predicting better academic performance in college, the higher minimum could block out those students. In fact, the NCAA was sued over this point in 2003, when it first adopted a minimum test score. It won that lawsuit, but left the sliding scale in place.
But in January, Harrison told the board that his committee wanted to reconsider the new minimum, and solicited feedback from faculty representatives, coaches, conferences and institutions. Despite getting “every conceivable response” on whether the new or old minimum were best, and board members themselves being split on the issue, the committee reported back that its members felt the old one should stay.
Nathan Hatch, chair of the Division I board and president of Wake Forest University, said the rule seemed "draconian" in its potential effects for students at “vulnerable institutions,” particularly historically black colleges and universities. And raising the minimum “seemed drastic,” he said, in light of the several other changes in place. It’s unclear yet what effects those measures (which are being phased in through 2016) will have, but the presidents are adamant they will improve academic performance.
“In some ways, it was looking more carefully at the ramifications of what we had done and being more cautious not to – in the name of quality – damage an opportunity,” Hatch said. “There is a continuing and keen interest in academic reform. So I don’t think this suggests for a minute less interest, less commitment to that. I think it’s just, what is appropriate given all the kinds of institutions we have, and having colleges and schools be a place of opportunity as well as a place that has standards. I think it’s that balance.”
The NCAA and board members point to rising Academic Progress Rates , which the NCAA uses to measure classroom performance, as evidence that its initiatives are already working. The most recent APR figures showed that in most sports, at least 80 percent of athletes are on track to graduate within six years. The two sports that lag are football and men’s basketball, whose APRs are in the 60 to 70 percent range, respectively.
"I think what’s happened now is it’s improved faster than we anticipated,” Harrison said of athletes’ academic performance. “If we can avoid that kind of different impact based on race, I personally feel we’re wiser, if we can achieve the same end.”
In recent months, the board has also suspended several recruiting rules  proposed by a committee formed after the retreat that would have “deregulated” the system, allowing more freedom in who can recruit and how. Two of those reversals happened at last week’s meeting. In an organization that usually moves at a glacial pace, the unprecedented pace of change has faced resistance – institutions also pushed back against proposals aimed at improving athlete welfare, including multiyear scholarships and a $2,000 stipend to help cover the cost of attendance.
However, other new rules  -- including the increased G.P.A. minimum, higher academic standards for transfer students, and a requirement that students spread out their core courses in high school – remain on the books.
“A lot of us came out of that retreat feeling this was a time to act, and I think in retrospect, some of what we chose to do we might have done a little more thoughtfully and inclusively,” Harrison said. “The membership is saying, wait a minute, you can only lead us where we are willing to follow. So I think it’s a good lesson to be learned.”
The board and academic performance committee will be monitoring how the reforms affect eligibility and APRs over the next two years, and if changes are in order, Harrison said, they’ll be made. But personally, Harrison is left wondering whether standardized test scores are a useful or appropriate eligibility measure at all.
Basketball coaches were concerned about the higher minimum, but did not lobby the NCAA to get it reversed, said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
“Coaches are for graduation – they’re not opposed to higher standards,” Haney said. “You can encourage and help teach somebody how to do better in the classroom, but I don’t think anybody has figured out how you can get someone to get a higher standardized test score.”