After a sometimes-emotional, 20-year debate on the issue of applying an arbitrarily set cutoff score on standardized entrance exams as a criterion for freshman athletic participation, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors yesterday approved elimination of the cutoff score as part of an academic reform package.

The new policy to determine eligibility in the freshman year eliminates a cutoff score on the SAT or ACT standardized tests but maintains a cutoff grade-point average of 2.0 in core courses. The number of core courses prospects must complete in high school increases from 13 to 14. An extended sliding scale will allow those with better classroom performances to compensate for deficient test scores. For example, students with core GPAs of 2.5 will need minimum SAT scores of 820 (out of 1,600) to qualify, and those with 2.55 core GPAs would need 800.

While the initial eligibility standards appear to have broadened, the reform package is more stringent with first- and second-year students. In their first academic years, athletes will need to pass 24 semester hours, only six of which can be in remedial work, with 1.8 GPAs. Previously, 12 remedial hours could be used, and each member institution determined its minimum GPA.

After the first year, an athlete must pass at least 18 hours during each regular academic year, including a minimum of six hours per semester. To retain eligibility, the athlete will need a 1.9 GPA going into the third academic year and a 2.0 going into the fourth. In addition, the requirements for progress toward a degree are increased from 25 to 40 percent of necessary credits/course hours going into the third year, 50 to 60 percent going into the fourth year and 75 to 80 percent going into the fifth year.

"This is data-based," said Kansas University President Robert Hemenway, chairman of the 16-member board of campus CEOs that approves all policy changes in the division. "There is very little that is arbitrary in the decision we have reached. The fact is that success in high school core courses is the best predictor we have for success in the first year of college."

The policy was approved 14-2, with dissenting votes from the Southeastern and the Atlantic Coast conferences, whose representatives wanted to cut off the sliding scale at a lower point. The total package subsequently was approved unanimously after discussion of the initial eligibility rules and several other policies.

Sheldon Steinbach, vice president and general counsel of the Washington-based American Council on Education, sees flaws in relying so heavily on high school grades.

The new initial eligibility policy "when viewed in the light of reality, is an invitation to massive fraud at high school," Steinbach said. "The pressures that will be put on individual teachers, counselors and principals so that some student-athletes have the requisite eligibility for participation in college will be enormous. . . . This is not somebody moaning about the victories of yesteryear, but a realistic concern about the impact of the proposal on grading policies at high schools. It's unsettling, in fact."

Hemenway does not agree.

"I think the premise we've been operating under is that virtually all high schools go about an honest grading process," he said. "For the cynics, I think that's kind of a dark view of the world that we don't have. The fact of the matter is we depend on high schools to do a good job grading when we award academic scholarships for students who are not athletes. I don't know why we wouldn't trust them when it comes to student-athletes."

Academic standards have been touchstone issues since Proposition 48 was enacted in 1983 and took effect for the 1986-87 academic year. Minority leaders argued that the policy was racially discriminatory because it did not account for the difference in educational opportunities available at inner-city schools and those in suburban and private schools. Such differences usually correspond to socio-economic environment. Critics of the NCAA policy said that classroom performance in core academic courses was a better means of predicting success in college than standardized test scores. The new NCAA president agrees.

"I know from being president of Indiana University that the single best predictor -- the single most important predictor of success in college -- is high school performance in academic core courses," said Myles Brand, who will take over as NCAA president next year, in an interview on Tuesday. "In fact at IU-Bloomington, we only look at the SAT at best as a secondary item. . . .

"The message being sent to young men and women who want to succeed in intercollegiate athletics is that they need to do well academically in high school. . . . That's what's going to tell us whether they graduate or not. So I think this is headed in the right direction."

The change in standards likely will affect less than 1 percent of all recruits who will enter college in fall 2003, according to Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of membership services. Of that one percent, 75 percent are minority students and 60 percent are black.

"The problem with the [820 cutoff] scores was that it was eliminating a lot of kids who the data was showing could have been successful if given an opportunity," said William DeLauder, president of Delaware State University, a historically black institution. "And by using that cut score, they never did have an opportunity."

The new reform package provides the most accurate, fair and defensible policy the NCAA could write, said University of Oregon President David Frohmayer, the Pacific-10's representative on the board.

"I think we're going to see much better retention and much better graduation rates," he said. ". . . It's better to have a system that will work and represents academic standards and has low legal risk."

Staff writer Liz Clarke contributed to this report from Indianapolis.