A proposal to impose statewide academic standards on students who participate in extracurricular activities, popularly called "no pass-no play," failed to get a passing grade in its first test before the legislature today.
In its first public hearing, before the House Education Committee, speakers were almost unanimously critical of the measure. Among the opponents of the bill are the Fairfax County schools and the State Board of Education.
The bill's sponsor, Del. J.W. (Billy) O'Brien (D-Virginia Beach), a former athlete who became one of the winningest high school football coaches in the state's history, said present rules "send the wrong message, that you only need to get by," to participate in sports and other activities.
O'Brien's bill would require students to maintain a 1.6 grade point average out of a perfect 4.0, to have passed at least five academic subjects in the previous semester and not to have failed more than one in the previous grading period. A student who fails the same subject in two consecutive grading periods would be ineligible for any activities outside classes in the next grading period.
The standards would affect all high school activities for which credit is not given, such as student government, dramatics, debate, cheerleading and sports. Band and choral groups would not be covered because they are credit courses.
Now, O'Brien said, "an athlete can play with four Ds, two Es and a .67 average." The present rules were adopted by the Virginia High School League, which governs athletics.
O'Brien called the proposed standards "fair, and within reach of all students."
But Paul Matthews, executive secretary of the state NAACP, said sports often serve "to relieve stress and pressure" on students who have problems at home or at school. He said it is better to allow them to play if it keeps them in school.
Earl Gillespie of the 285-school Virginia High School League said that standards "should be set by local school boards," but he said most boards delegate that task to principals.
George Daniels, a 15-year-old high school sophomore and president of the Richmond youth council of the NAACP, said the 1.6 grade average is "not enough, 2.0 would be better." But Daniels said failing a single class alone should not make a student ineligible. "If I got all As but one F, I couldn't participate, but I could with four Cs and three Ds," he said.
William Savage, physical education coordinator of the Fairfax schools, said each school system should be free to establish its own standards.
In Fairfax, he said, a survey of the grades of 6,900 student athletes last winter found that less than 1 percent were ineligible under existing standards. But 3.1 percent would have been ineligible had they been required to pass five subjects, and 9.1 percent had they been required to maintain a C average, he said.
Savage said Fairfax, the state's largest system, monitors the grades of all students who participate in activities in which a coach or teacher receives extra pay.
But he drew laughter when, asked how long the program has been in effect, he said, "since Wednesday."
William J. (Jack) Burkholder, deputy state superintendent of schools and a former Fairfax superintendent, said the state board "supports the concept of no-pass, no-play," but believes "local options are more appropriate."
The lone witness who spoke on behalf of the bill was a retired naval officer, Zeke Newcomb of Fredericksburg, who said he taught high school mathematics for two years and was "appalled at the indifference" of many students. "We can't pamper them forever," he said.