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In Iowa, grades versus goals

How one school coped with a state rule that any athlete who fails a class gets benched.

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While walking near the library a few weeks ago, he stopped a student on a cellphone. "Aren't you supposed to be in my office?" Pause. "What happened with that?" The student snapped his phone shut and walked back toward the principal's office. Murray continued with his critique of the no-pass-no/fail rule. Athletics give students a connection to the school they don't get from the classroom, he says. "Every kid has to have a feeling of belonging. If you can connect with every kid, you have a chance of having every kid graduate."

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Murray argues that the mandate hits struggling kids hardest, and there's some evidence to support his claim. The majority of high school athletes ruled ineligible this school year had grade point averages between 1.00 and 1.99, reported a survey commissioned by the Board of Education. But coaches and athletic directors say that's not reflective of the overall student athlete population.

William Watson, who conducted the survey, says today's high school athletes are, on average, more focused and better disciplined than their counterparts. "They have less time, so their time management improves and they achieve better," he says. Of 122 Iowa high schools that responded to Mr. Watson's survey, 112 said their athletes had a higher grade point average compared with the overall student population. "We all want the higher standards," says Watson, who is also the activities director at Urbandale High School in metro Des Moines. "Whether or not this is going to help kids achieve more is up for discussion."

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Before the no-pass rule, Iowa followed a less stringent "pass-four" standard, which meant a student had to pass four out of five classes to play sports. Many coaches and administrators preferred that approach. Nevada athletic director Dave McCaulley, who was overseeing the lunch line in the cafeteria on a recent Tuesday, recalls how he "saved" one troubled student under the old rule.

"There was not one person in this young man's family that had a high school diploma," says Mr. McCaulley, who also coaches Nevada's football team. In his senior year, "we got him connected with football. All of a sudden, he's showing up for school and making the honor roll," even though he wasn't passing every one of his classes, he says. "That young man graduated with a diploma." Under the new rule, McCaulley doesn't think he would have made it to graduation.

Critics rue some of the administrative burdens under the new rule, too. It's sometimes hard to get students academic assistance, because more of them are being suspended. The number of ineligible student athletes at 173 Iowa high schools went from 560 in the first semester of 2005-06 to 1,497 in the first semester of 2006-07, according to Watson's survey. "I would maybe talk to five kids a year about their grades," says McCaulley. "Now, I'm talking to 25 to 35 kids every term."

Moreover, the punishment doesn't start immediately after a student fails a class. The suspension applies to the students' main sport – the one they tried out for when they first got to high school. A football player who fails English in December, for example, won't serve his suspension until next September, when football starts again, even if he goes out for track in the spring. "It's created a bookkeeping nightmare," McCaulley says.

At a meeting in April, the Board of Education appointed a committee to study the impact of the no-pass rule. The board's Mr. Vincent, for one, believes holding athletes more accountable in the classroom will end up helping schools – and the nation. "If we're dealing with the world economy, which we are, we better get our expectations higher," he says.