The major issue in intercollegiate athletics today is the standardized test score portion of NCAA Proposition 48 that strengthens academic requirements for first-year eligibility at the nation's 277 colleges and universities in Division I. Here are some answers to some of the questions most frequently raised about the new rule.

Question: What is Proposition 48?

Answer: It is an amendment to the NCAA bylaws concerning initial athletic eligibility. It requires two absolutes--a minimum score of 700 of a possible 1,600 on the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or 15 of a possible 36 on the American College Test (ACT), and a 2.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in a core curriculum of 11 academic courses in high school, including three years of English, two years of math, two years of social science and two years of physical or natural science. It becomes effective for the 1986-87 academic year.

Proposition 49-B, also passed by the NCAA last month, allows an athlete who does not meet either or both criteria to receive an athletic scholarship if he has a 2.0 overall average. The athlete is ineligible for competition and practice as a freshman, and forfeits a year of eligibility.

Q: What did passage of Proposition 48 accomplish, besides causing a lot of controversy?

A: It has sent a message to athletes that they also must pursue improvement in academics as well as the open 17-foot jump shot. With no motivation or encouragement to succeed academically beforehand, there is the concern that some athletes are so functionally illiterate when they get into college that they could not handle the academic load, even if they were motivated enough to try.

Q: Why did Proposition 48 pass only now if, as Joe Paterno says, "We've raped and exploited a generation of black kids"?

A: It can be attributed to public pressure following a greater number of academic embarrassments, including federal indictments for transcript forgery. Jack Peltason, executive director of the American Council on Education, calls it "the scandal of college athletics." This was the first year so many college presidents and chancellors attended the convention or directed a representative how to vote. They say they have returned to their primary purpose: education first, athletics second.

Q: But how can the NCAA impose its domain over independent boards of secondary education?

A: The NCAA can't. But it can set standards for eligibility, and its 788 member schools all have institutional autonomy to set entrance criterion. In addition to being a message to the athlete, it also is a message to the secondary educator to push academics. Some believe what the NCAA did was strictly an image builder, and that the problem in athletics will continue--but now, the pressure is diverted from the NCAA to high schools.

Q: Is being a coach or athletic director an academic issue?

A: Absolutely, and it's also an economic issue. Unfortunately, the two clash, and that's the root of the problem of academic and recruiting abuses in the major colleges. A history professor's job does not depend on the tickets he sells, the publicity he generates or the ranking of his team. He is tenured.

Usually, the athletic director is hired by the university, the coach is a hired by the athletic director, and the athlete is recruited by the coach. Their jobs are based not on academic performance but athletic performance. Even if a history professor has an off year, his tenure keeps his job out of danger. Most coaches are not tenured. And student scholarships are renewable on an annual basis.

Q: Why has there been such emotional opposition from the leaders of the 16 historically black colleges in Division I, the NAACP and Operation PUSH?

A: Blacks long have witnessed the use of standardized tests as a vehicle that closed doors to them. "They gave us literacy tests, not to make us literate, but to keep us from voting," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of Operation PUSH. In this context, these black leaders question the motives of the ACE committee, composed of some of the chief operating officers of schools that perennially rank among the top 20 football and basketball powers. Some of the same schools closed doors to all blacks as recently as the late 1960s.

These black leaders look at the Reagan administration and see an attempt to cut social programs; they see the mood of the country turning conservative; they see setbacks in affirmative action programs; they see the Alan Bakke decision closing doors in professional schools. They see the poor being further polarized. And when the NCAA passes a rule that would have kept 51 percent of black males from first-year athletic eligibility if currently in effect, they see the potential of the athletic door being closed. There is much mistrust of the ACE among those opposed to the standardized tests.

Harry Edwards, professor of psychology at California-Berkeley, says his basic disagreement is that any rule that stimulates academic awareness is good, because so many black youth have had tunnel vision in ignoring academic pursuit. He, as others, including Georgetown Basketball Coach John Thompson, predicts that there will be no decline in the number of black athletes at major schools, because the schools will continue to cheat to get them in. Thompson, however, is against standardized tests without standardized opportunity.

Not all blacks see standardized tests as racially biased, either. Norman Francis of Xavier University, president of the United Negro College Fund, says, "The problem is not with the students, nor with the test, but rather with an educational system which fails to teach youngsters what they need to know."

Q: How does the Educational Testing Service and the College Board react to Proposition 48?

A: The presidents of both companies say the tests achieve their purpose: to predict a student's performance as a college freshman. But they also are wary of the tests being misused in this case, because the score is an absolute, bearing equal weight to their core curriculum, and not being used in combination with other factors, as in college admission decisions. Both have offered assistance in developing criteria acceptable to both the ACE's committee members and to the presidents of the historically black colleges. The testing service concurs that the bias is a class bias, not a racial one.

The polarizing rhetoric of a public debate only recently has changed direction, toward finding solutions. The ACE committee has invited the College Board's advice; the ETS has offered its help. But many ACE committee members staunchly say that any modification of the 700 test score will gut the rule's objective, based on a college preparatory curriculum and a national test standard that would eliminate some cheating in the high schools and take into account that an A at one high school may be no better than a D at another.

The leaders of the historically black schools want the standardized test eliminated, except in diagnostic use. The issue also has triggered awareness of a broader test-score issue in education, involving admission to graduate and professional schools and for college teacher certification.

It is possible that no first-year students will be eligible for athletic competition or practice, a position favored by many educators, but by far fewer coaches or athletic directors, who see it in terms of budget, not transcript. Five-year scholarships, with competition allowed in the final four years, are another possibility, perhaps with limited practice time. The academic counseling of athletes has to be taken out of the athletic department, where there is a conflict of interest. And most of all, the universities have to provide the opportunity to prepare their athletes to graduate. Conversely it also must flunk them out, like any other student, if they then fail to meet the standards--before their eligibility expires.

And, unless coaches and athletic directors receive tenure and/or are fired for cheating, they will remain paid athletic mercenaries. Otherwise the critics of the NCAA will have been correct to claim what was passed at San Diego was not meant to be substantive, only image-building.