The school rule known as “No Pass/No Play” is designed to motivate high school students to pass every class, or be barred from school-sponsored extracurricular activities. “No pass” means no football, no drama, no nothing, for students with failing grades.
The rule sends some powerful messages:
Academics come first.
Failure has consequences.
Don’t mess with Texas. No kidding.
Texas was the first state to enact No Pass/No Play into law, based on recommendations from a 1984 commission on school reform led by Dallas businessman H. Ross Perot.
Texas later amended their rule, exempting some high level classes from “no pass”, and cutting the “no play” period to 3 weeks – just in time to get a player back on the field during football season.
But No Pass/No Play spread like wildfire from Texas to the rest of the nation. Sixteen states have No pass/No play rules and by 2007, a total of 32 states had some type of conditional eligibility for extracurricular activities. In Maryland, local school boards decide eligibility based on students’ academic progress toward graduation.
Students in Harford County Public Schools can fail up to 6 classes in four years of high school and still earn a Maryland diploma. But the local school board voted to adopt the more stringent No Pass/No Play rule, by gradually limiting the number of classes a student could fail and still participate in extracurricular activities. First, it was two classes, then one, then none, beginning with results from the fourth quarter of the 2005- 06 school year.
Eligibility in Harford County is determined each quarter for the subsequent quarter. So, one failing grade on a quarterly report card means that a student is ineligible for the next quarter, and for as long as the student is failing at least one class. Students can get back on track by passing all of their classes, becoming eligible again in the following quarter.
Some exceptions are made for students who go through an appeals process. But in Harford County, as in much of the nation, No Pass/No Play has endured as a “get tough” policy. Has it also been good for kids?
There’s plenty of research linking participation in extracurricular activities to positive outcomes for students. By contrast, research on the effects of No Pass/No Play is remarkably sparse, especially given the policy’s popularity.
A 1994 follow-up study of Texas students showed that No Pass/No Play had what researchers called a “slightly positive effect”. The problem is that No Pass/No Play was implemented along with a series of other school reforms, so the study concludes that the results can’t be linked to No Pass/No Play alone.
A 1992 Arizona study also notes some success, but raises concerns about a disproportionate impact on African American, Hispanic and Native American students:
“The data suggests that the rule was at best a very modest short term success; however, this success was at the cost of having a disproportional impact on minorities, possibly having negative long term consequences, and costing school personnel a great deal of time and effort to monitor and report. These initial results indicate that the costs of this rule may not outweigh the benefits.”
Efforts to evaluate the policy in Harford County have been hampered by incomplete information.
After No Pass/No Play was implemented, the school board monitored the percentage of students who were failing one or more classes each quarter. The hope was that the new rule would motivate more students to pass all of their classes and the percentage of ineligible students would decline over time.
Although the policy was approved in December of 2004 and didn’t fully kick in until the spring of 2006, the reports given to the school board didn’t include baseline data, so the opportunity to compare pre- and post-policy ineligibility rates may have been lost, unless that data can somehow be recaptured.
But once No Pass/No Play was in force, data was collected and reported each quarter. The first set of data reported after the policy was implemented in the fourth quarter of 2006 showed that 38% of ninth through eleventh graders were ineligible for extracurricular activities. (Fourth quarter figures do not include seniors, because seniors will have graduated by the following quarter when eligibility takes effect).
Four years later, the ineligibility rate had dropped to 36%, in the fourth quarter of 2009.
Keeping in mind that failure rates tend to fluctuate throughout the school year, the bottom line is that for much of the life of the policy, about one-third of all high school students were ineligible for extracurricular activities.
But the figures are all averages. At times, some high schools had ineligibility rates less than 20%. At other schools, over half the student body was ineligible.
Still, the average 2% drop over the life of the policy is good news. As are reports that the overall number of ‘E’s’ (failing grades) have been in decline. It’s just that the good news can’t be attributed to the policy, without controlling for other variables. Plus, the data represent all students, including those who have no interest in extracurricular activities. Changes in the failure rates for these students can’t be attributed to No Pass/No Play, but their results aren’t separated out, so we have no idea if they skewed the overall ineligibility rate up or down.
To fairly evaluate the impact of No Pass/No Play, we’d have to know more:
1. What percentage of the students in extracurricular activities became ineligible each quarter?
2. Among these ineligible students, what percent later pulled up their grades and became eligible, and what percent did not?
3. How do the two groups compare in terms of size, drop-out rate and graduation rate?
4. What is the demographic breakdown of each of the two groups?
Absent this information and probably more, it’s difficult to understand the impact of No Pass/No Play. That lack of understanding alone may be reason to rethink the policy. If we don’t know the policy is doing any good, we also can’t be assured it’s doing no harm.
What if it turns out that the majority of ineligible students are living in poverty?
What if at-risk students who become ineligible are more likely to drop out, than get back to eligibility?
What if ineligible students with special needs or limited English proficiency are struggling because they are in need of services?
Similar to the Arizona study, we might find that the policy has had unintended consequences that outweigh the intended benefits. But that’s a discussion for another time.
For now, here is the latest eligibility data for the ten public high schools in Harford County. The school board no longer requests that these reports be presented at public meetings. The following was provided by HCPS to The Dagger upon request: