The state school board is considering whether students who play sports in high school should maintain a minimum 2.0 grade point average to be eligible, a requirement already in place in 16 school systems in Maryland.
A statewide committee of superintendents, principals and coaches made the recommendation, although school board members expressed concern at a meeting Tuesday that such a standard might increase the dropout rate among students who are drawn to school for the chance to play on a team.
"I think maybe it is time to rethink" the academic standards, said school board member Donna Hill Staton. "Why is athletics a privilege rather than part of their personal growth?"
A bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly last session requires the board to submit recommendations on minimum academic standards by the end of the year, but those standards do not have to include a specific GPA.
If approved by the state school board in December, the minimum standards would become recommendations for school systems but would not be a regulatory requirement. Students would not have to maintain a cumulative 2.0 throughout high school, but a 2.0 in the marking period before and during the time they play on a team.
Baltimore County and the city as well as four other jurisdictions do not have a minimum GPA for sports, but students who fail more than one class during the previous marking period are not eligible to play. Anne Arundel and Howard County students must maintain a 2.0 GPA, which is a C average in the public school system.
Some coaches said they support the minimum GPA. "It is bigger than sports. It is about education," said Wardell Selby, the girls basketball coach at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore. Sports "is keeping a lot of students in school, but we can't lower our standards so low that they are coming to school for sports."
Selby and other coaches said students who want to play sports in college have to meet grade requirements that are higher than those in high school.
David Cox, the superintendent of schools in Allegany County, said school superintendents would like to maintain local discretion to set their own requirements. Current Maryland regulations only state that local systems must lay out eligibility requirements, but do not offer specific recommendations. "The superintendents feel very strongly this is a local control issue," said Cox.
The question board members struggled with was whether a minimum GPA would be a motivation for students to work harder in classes to play sports or a barrier for others who might otherwise stay in school.
"There are students whose coaches will tell you that the reason they stay in school and the reason they graduate is because of athletics," said Susan Johnson, principal of Calvert High School in Calvert County. She said some students in special education have to work hard to attain a 2.0 average.
School board member Ivan C. A. Walks suggested that the board get more creative in the way it approaches the GPA requirement. He said the board could consider allowing students to fulfill their high school physical education requirement by playing a sport.
Currently, even those students who are on a varsity team for four years must take a year of physical education to graduate. But students can take specialized physical education courses, such as fitness and conditioning. "Maybe you can get a grade in basketball," Walks said. "If you can get a grade in conditioning, then can't you get a grade in basketball?"
And school board member Kate Walsh asked the committee to draft exceptions to the minimum GPA for students who have special circumstances.
In Harford County, a student who doesn't meet the minimum academic standard has a chance to go before an eligibility review board, said Ken Brinkman, a physical education teacher and football coach at North Harford High School. Some students, he said, fail a course or have a bad semester because they have family issues or other problems that derail their studies.
While the eligibility board will sometimes allow a student who fails a class to play a sport, Brinkman said, they rarely allow it twice during a student's high school career or for students who haven't shown they care about school work.
"There are some kids who have gone on to graduate from high school and gone on to graduate college" after being allowed to play sports despite poor grades, Brinkman said. "I still think there needs to be a minimum, something they know is achievable. … I would love to see a statewide standard."