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Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Updated: August 8, 11:41 AM ET
NCAA eligibility's judge and jury

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

sample test answers
The High School Review arm of the NCAA's Eligibility Center sees plenty of examples of shockingly deficient course work.

INDIANAPOLIS -- True or false: A cat has nine lives and a dog has four legs?

For five points: Describe a brief encounter that you have experienced in the last month and explain whether it made you feel good or bad.

Answer: I was playing basketball and this kid fouled me really hard and cut my finger I was so mad that once I got the ball again I dunked so hard that I made the cut worse. It made me feel bad cause now I can't play for a week.

Correct

The first is from a high school geometry test; the second from an online high school English course.

Both were turned in -- by different high schools -- to the High School Review team, the arm of the Eligibility Center charged with determining, among other things, whether a high school class can be considered a core course, whether a high school deserves certification by the NCAA and whether an individual high school athlete meets NCAA eligibility requirements, which will increase for the 2016 class, beginning with this fall's high school freshmen.

If you want to know how the sausage of college eligibility is made, these are the folks to talk to. They have seen it all: from high schools set up in hotel rooms to kids living on air mattresses at phony prep schools; from doctored transcripts to clueless principals; and yes, from the aforementioned laughable test questions to another example where a student was allowed, for half credit, to take another stab at an incorrect answer … on a true-false quiz.

"It's tragic," said Jeremy McCool, associate director of the High School Review. "The victims are the kids."

There is a notion, a strong one, that the Eligibility Center and its High School Review workers are the NCAA bogeymen, the heartless investigators who dig through paperwork or scavenge neighborhoods hoping for a "gotcha" moment where they can catch a wayward school or declare a kid ineligible.

The truth couldn't be more different. The High School Review team is made up entirely of former high school employees -- coaches and academics -- who are sometimes quite literally an athlete's last hope to play college athletics.

They take their jobs seriously -- "The thing that sometimes gets lost in all of this is that there is a flesh-and-blood student involved in all of this," said Lisa Roesler, a director with the High School Review.

They just wish everyone else would do the same.

Instead they are left to ferret out the miscreants who try to profit off of kids by offering easy academics in exchange for a fat check or dig through a high school transcript that reads more like a twisted treasure map.

The vast majority of schools and athletes, frankly, skate through the process without incident. The Eligibility Center approves nearly nine times as many students, high schools and courses as it denies.

But the exceptions can be exceptionally awful.

"We see a lot of heartbreaking situations that most people will never know about," said associate director Mark Hicks. "Are they partially culpable themselves? Sure. As an 18-year-old you know when you're not doing anything but they're also sold a bill of goods."

Their job is more tedious than glamorous, involving laborious document research and sifting.

Occasionally they will investigate a questionable school in person, but as brick-and-mortar schools give way to online schools, most of their hours are spent at a desk, poring through information to determine what or who qualifies and what or who does not.

We see a lot of heartbreaking situations that most people will never know about. Are they partially culpable themselves? Sure. As an 18-year-old you know when you're not doing anything but they're also sold a bill of goods.

--Mark Hicks, associate director of High School Review

"It's completely less sexy than people might think it is," Hicks said.

The numbers they deal with would put a dedicated IRS wonk to shame:

• More than 39,000 high schools in the database
• 200,000 new high school athletes registering with the clearinghouse annually
• 110,000 core courses submitted for review annually, which breaks down to 400 or so a day

And a staff of … 10.

"We prioritize," said Roesler, with a knowing smile. "If it's student-specific -- if a student is waiting -- that would go to the top of the pile."

Since the group's inception in 2006, the team members have received their own eye-opening education in the world of secondary education.

As the big business of college athletics has blossomed, so too has the eligibility cottage industry. The hot-button issues change -- one concocted plan fizzles under scrutiny, only to re-form in another way -- but never go away entirely.

Two of the biggest issues the High School Review is dealing with right now are:

Outsourcing: This, the High School Review said, is the No. 1 trend and problem it is seeing. In place of what were once the so-called diploma mills, high school-level coaches now cull together a national team, put the members up in housing and outsource their education to another school, or better yet, a virtual school or homeschool program.

Some pass the smell test.

Plenty do not.

"We've been told, 'I knew not to start a school because you guys would crack down on me, so I coach and let educators educate,'" Hicks said. "Per se, there is nothing wrong with that model, but in reality, often times the business model that supports that educational entity is flawed. It can't sustain quality education over time."

Sadly, the kids and the parents are the victims. Told that they simply need to pay tuition and play, they fork over the cash, the kid goes to the pseudo school, and then the Eligibility Center is left to tell him or her the course work doesn't meet the NCAA's standards.

"We've coined it a parasitic relationship," McCool said. "A coach finds a host -- usually an existing K-8 environment -- creates a secondary component that is unsustainable, and is able to profit off of it for a limited time. Then we come in and fold it and they move on, find another host and do it all over again."

Online education: Nick Sproull, an assistant director with the High School Review, said online education is growing at a clip of 30 percent annually, but ferreting out what is and isn't a legit online school isn't easy.

And for a group charged with determining the academic merits of individual classes, trying to determine if a class taken outside a "brick and mortar" building is legitimate only adds to the workload.

"There is so much changing right now -- the impacts of No Child Left Behind -- that it is almost a full-time job to try and keep up with that world," Sproull said.

The NCAA has clearly defined rules -- including a time frame during which an online course can be completed, thereby eliminating actual instances of students somehow taking an entire advanced-level English course in minutes -- but the rules can't determine who is doing the grading and establishing the curriculum.

Some online courses are state-run, others are operated by the school district. Private schools offer virtual learning, as do private companies.

"The issue is vetting it out," said Diane Dickman, the NCAA managing director of academic and membership affairs. "Is quality education occurring? Maybe not the way we learned, but is it a quality education? Or is it some center and when you walk in, the lady at the desk says, 'I don't even know what you're talking about.'"