Harford Schools Scratch Pad: Has “No Pass, No Play” Policy Been Good for Students?

Another in an occasional series of opinion and observations about Harford County Public Schools:

Public outrage and a potential class action suit over pay-to-play student activity fees enacted in Harford County Public Schools this year contrast starkly with a “no pass, no play” policy enacted years ago that disqualifies thousands of county students from sports and other extra-curricular activities, with little public outcry.

“No pass, no play” makes high school students who fail one or more classes in a marking period ineligible for extra-curricular activities until they earn passing grades. The policy has popular appeal, but has “no pass, no play” been good for kids?” The answer is: Incomplete.

Following the lead of Texas lawmakers in the mid-1980s, sixteen states had enacted strict “no pass, no play” policies by 2007, with a majority of U.S. states having some form of conditional eligibility. In Maryland, where students can fail some classes and still earn a high school diploma, “no pass, no play” is optional; local school boards are only required to base eligibility on students’ academic progress toward graduation.

In Harford County, “no pass, no play” took effect with the last marking period of school year 2005 – 06. Eligibility 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 in any subject. Students can get back on track by passing all of their classes, becoming eligible again in the following quarter. Exceptions to the policy may be granted on appeal.

Since the policy was enacted locally, ineligibility rates have declined significantly, dropping from 38% to 30% (or 2,660 out of 8,751 students), according to information provided to The Dagger by HCPS.* Whether the decline in failing grades was due to “no pass, no play” or other factors is unknown, in part because the school administration at the time didn’t track the necessary data. Harford County is not alone.

Despite nationwide implementation, remarkably little research has been done on the impact of “no plass, no play”, including the effects on students who are excluded from the established benefits of extra-curricular activities.

A follow-up study of students in one Texas school district showed that “no pass, no play” appeared to have a positive effect. However, the policy was implemented along with other school reforms, so the study concluded that the results couldn’t be linked to “no pass, no play” alone.

A 1992 Arizona study also noted some success, but raised 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.”

The Harford County Board of Education last reviewed the policy five years ago, focused on changes in ineligibility rates for the student body overall. In response to a request from The Dagger, HCPS provided an update by high school of ineligibility rates for the fourth marking period of the 2012-13 school year.

Compared to rates from the comparable period five years ago, ineligibility declined significantly at four of the ten comprehensive county high schools, with smaller decreases at five schools, and at one school, a small increase.

However, results among county high schools also showed wide variations, with more than 55% of students ineligible at Joppatowne High School compared to 18% at Fallston.*

The following chart outlines ineligibility rates by high school, then and now:

Potential negative consequences from the policy have not been considered. Such as:

• What has been the effect on student discipline, drop out, and graduation rates among students barred from extra-curricular activities by the policy?

• What are the demographics of ineligible students; what percentages are living in poverty, have special education needs, or are English language learners?

• Has the policy disproportionately disenfranchised at-risk students who may be most in need of a positive connection to school and something productive to do after 2:00 p.m.?

New considerations arising from recent developments include:

• Will the new pay to play fees, implemented to raise revenue, compound any existing divide between the haves and have-nots resulting from “no pass, no play”?

• With teachers and students transitioning to the more rigorous Common Core State Standards and testing, should “no pass, no play” be reviewed or revised?

“No pass, no play” may turn out to be good policy but good policy should be determined by more than popular appeal. In other words, just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t make it right.

*Because students who earn at least one “E” during a particular marking period are ineligible for activities beginning in the following marking period, 4th quarter comparison data excludes graduating seniors. The complete update recently provided to The Dagger by HCPS for the 4th quarter of 2013 appears below:


  1. Concerned Teacher says

    If I recall correctly, the move to “no pass, no play” was in direct response to the creation of the UCBAC. Cecil County schools already had this policy, and they felt that they were put at a competitive disadvantage if the Harford County schools had a different eligibility policy than the Cecil County schools. Since CCPS was unwilling to lower their standards (and rightfully so), the only option was for HCPS to adopt the more stringent policy.

  2. Incredible says

    This is a good thing for our children. It promotes a “work hard, play hard” attitude. Johnny failed English? Too bad. No sports for you. Johnny got straight D’s? Congrats! You can play football!

  3. Kharn says

    “No pass, no play” should absolutely remain the rule, with a waiver requiring superintendent approval for extraordinary circumstances. “Passing” should also require a C- or higher.

  4. a teacher says

    This article seems a bit slanted. The “Potential negative consequences from the policy have not been considered. Such as:” is telling. As a high school teacher I know from first hand experience that students who want to participate in sports and other extra curricular activities WILL make the grades when they need to. I have seen it happen many many times that when Billy and Nancy want to play (insert any sport or other activity) they gets the grades necessary to be eligible. Unfortunately, after that sport season or activity is over earning passing grades now become optional for them. This policy places accountability on the student (where it should be) to put their academic education first. I am not advocating this but we could just do away with all high school “extracurricular” sponsored athletics and that would put and end the issue of pay to play.

    • Kharn says

      Or we could require every player have passed each prior year, each previous quarter and be currently passing every class they are in.

      My high school did that years ago, even the most rudimentary electronic gradebook make it very easy for each coach to pull their players’ grades. Fail a big geometry test on Tuesday? You are pulled aside on Thursday, told to not bother wearing the jersey to class on Friday and to buy your own ticket for the game. Sure, our teams did not win many state championships, but our athletes paid attention in class.

      • Mike Welsh says

        I grew up and attended school in the Midwest. My schools had similar policies and there was no doubt that sports were considered extracurricular. Academics came first, however we were competitive with other schools as they had the same policies. Somewhere in the 70’s things started to change, and an attitude began to take hold that for some students sports was their only chance for success. Little by little schools began to adopt that policy and here we are today with many among us thinking that sports are not extracurricular to school attendance, sports are the very reason for attendance. Sad!

      • Harford County Mom says

        This should also apply to incoming freshman. You want to play sports your freshman year, keep your grades up in middle school.

  5. Brian Makarios says

    Once again, the schools should not be playing the role of sports provider. Leave that to the community recreation councils. What are the schools supposed to be, the all-providing hand for all things pertaining to child development? Before you know it the schools will be providing breakfast and thinking that they can be a better parent and know more than the actual parents. Oh, wait, never mind.

    • asdf says

      I’ve been a teacher in a low SES and high SES school in Harford county. Some schools do provide breakfast to all students. Also, unfortunately, in many cases the school does know more than actual parents and is a better parent. I am not saying this is the norm but it is a truth that Harford County does live with.

  6. HC Teacher says

    I agree! Make the previous quarter count as well as middle school grades! As a middle school teacher, its so hard to motivate these students who want to play sports. This is the key to keep them focused and applying themselves. These rules apply to college sports as well, why not start now?! We have many students all over the county that need these sports as they have no one else to help them foster their athletic skills, just as with academic clubs….grades should matter!