Online high school courses may not meet NCAA rules

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It's not enough to graduate from high school, be admitted to college and be chosen for a team to be eligible to play Division I sports in college.

The high school courses taken by athletes also must be approved by the NCAA Eligibility Center as meeting its standards for college preparation.

Former Woodland Hills football player Khaynin Mosley-Smith learned that the hard way. He signed on to play football this fall at the University of Pittsburgh, but the NCAA recently declared him academically ineligible for the Pitt team because of a software-based program he used in high school.

In an age where more and more high school course offerings extend beyond the traditional classroom, the NCAA has been taking a close look at whether such courses -- online, virtual, independent study, correspondence and software-based credit recovery -- meet its standards.

This month, the NCAA initiated a new policy -- approved in January -- outlining how to determine if "nontraditional" courses meet NCAA standards. The new policy applies to courses completed after Aug. 1.

To be eligible to participate in Division I sports in the first year of college, the NCAA requires students to complete 16 core courses in high school, including four years of English, three years of math and two years of science, among others.

Under the new policy, the NCAA states that nontraditional courses must meet these conditions:

• Course meets all requirements for a core course.

• The instructor and student have ongoing access and regular interaction with one another, including the teacher helping the student.

• The student's exams, papers and assignments are available for evaluation and validation.

• The student's work is evaluated in keeping with the high school's academic policies.

• The course must be completed in a defined period.

• Any student could take the course, not just athletes.

• The course appears on the high school transcript.

"With fewer than 2 percent of all NCAA student-athletes ever playing professionally, the NCAA feels it has an obligation to do all it can to help student-athletes graduate with meaningful degrees. The effort begins with making sure prospective student-athletes are academically prepared to succeed in the college classroom," NCAA spokeswoman Jennifer Royer said in an e-mail.

Division II is likely to consider similar legislation at its convention in January, she said.

Even before the new policy took effect, the NCAA scrutinized high school transcripts, including taking a close look at nontraditional courses.

At question in Mr. Mosley-Smith's case is a course he took which used PassKey computer software, a product of McGraw Hill. The NCAA characterizes it as a "software credit recovery curriculum." Credit recovery is a term used to apply to a way to make up classes, typically ones a student has failed.

"Software-based credit recovery courses are highly individualized and may be customized for each student," Ms. Royer said. "Because of this customization, the courses must be reviewed to determine whether they meet NCAA initial-eligibility requirements."

McGraw Hill spokeswoman Mary Skafidas said PassKey is a "supplemental program" that can be added to a school's existing reading, writing, math, social studies or science program.

"It usually has two purposes: One is to help students prepare for standardized tests or to help students who are behind catch up and start to perform at level. It's not a core program," she said.

Woodland Hills curriculum coordinator Norman Catalano said, "It's an additional system we use that is self-paced learning."

He said the high school has used the web-based program for about a year and a half to help students become proficient. The computer software -- which has modules that can cover material from the third-grade to college-entry level -- diagnoses a student's needs and provides practice to meet them.

Woodland Hills Deputy Superintendent Terry Wallace said that he and the superintendent were not informed by the NCAA about any issue about the use of PassKey.

"We're making internal inquiries to try to follow up on this," he said. "We're going to look at the whole thing to be sure we have an absolutely clear understanding of what's being used and how it's being used and we get our arms fully around the dimensions."

Ms. Royer said high school officials had appealed the NCAA's initial decision and were notified once the appeal was denied.

Meanwhile, high schools and colleges are working to learn the policy now in effect.

"This new bylaw clearly outlines what the guidelines are for nontraditional courses and what needs to be met," said Rick Christensen, assistant athletic director for compliance at Duquesne University. "It's important that communication is sent to the schools and the student athletes are aware of that."

With more nontraditional offerings for students, Mr. Christensen said the policy is "a way to catch up to that curve and make sure they're considering all kinds of academic opportunities."

When he talks with high school students, Mr. Christensen said he lets them know that college admission does not guarantee NCAA eligibility. He recommends athletes map out how they will meet NCAA academic requirements early in high school.

At Robert Morris University, spokesman Jonathan Potts said more and more students are arriving at college having taken online courses in high school.

"There are a lot of courses that athletes may take in high school online that other students take too. These are courses sanctioned by the high school. They're not just contrived for athletes. These are courses other students take as well that may no longer meet these [NCAA] requirements," he said.

He said it may be particularly difficult for students who are in high schools that don't regularly send athletes to Division I schools because those high school counselors may be less familiar with the rules.

He said colleges often have little contact with students before the end of the junior year and the students already may have taken courses that the NCAA doesn't count.

"There's a huge learning curve," he said.

Pitt athletic spokesman E.J. Borghetti deferred questions about the policy to the NCAA.


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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