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NCAA Eligibility Center Starts Test Score Validation Process

Anyone who has followed college basketball since 2008 has a rough idea about what happened with Memphis and Derrick Rose. Memphis was forced to vacate its runner-up appearance in the NCAA tournament after Rose’s SAT score that he needed to qualify was invalidated. The Committee on Infractions made life even more difficult for themselves and the rest of the NCAA by making some completely unnecessary comments about “strict liability”, which has colored the entire initial eligibility process since.

Yesterday the NCAA sent the membership a new FAQ document with updates to part of that process, namely Prospective Student-Athlete Review. While the document discusses what the program will be during the 2013-14 academic year, some of the features have existed in the PSA Review process for a while, or have been recently added but are already in place.

PSA Review is the process by which the NCAA Eligibility Center digs deeper into a prospect’s academic record. The transcripts and test scores may say the prospect should be a qualifier, but the NCAA has reason to believe there is something else going on. That may be academic fraud or it may be that the prospect (innocently) earned those credentials in a way that is academically unsound, i.e. did not prepare him or her for college work.

For a long time, the Eligibility Center was relatively hands-off with test scores, especially compared to a prospect’s course work. Test scores validity only became an issue when, like in the Derrick Rose case, the testing agency raised a concern. But that left a hole in the defenses against fraudulent test scores.

Unless the testing agency gets evidence of fraud, the most common way it flags test scores is when two or more tests have radically different scores. A student who takes one SAT and gets a 500 then takes another and scores 1000 is probably going to have his or her higher score investigated. After checking for fraud (examining handwriting, ensuring that security procedures were followed, etc.), the score might be validated, or the student might need to take a validation test, a third test which, if high enough, will cause the higher score to be cleared.

But this flagging only happens if the testing agency has at least two tests. If a prospect bombs the ACT, then cheats and scores well on the SAT, College Board has no other score to compare. It does not know that there is an ACT score which, if it were an SAT instead, would have triggered a review. So the NCAA, which may have not only both tests but also other academic information, has devised its own system for flagging test scores. The NCAA will compare an SAT and ACT to each other, or one test to the prospect’s GPA. If a sufficient gap exists, the Eligibility Center sends an inquiry to the testing agency to have the score checked out.

So far, this makes sense. The Eligibility Center is the only neutral party that has all this information. The SAT and ACT cannot be expected to investigate scores when they do not have the information that suggests a review is needed. It is what the NCAA does next where this process looks like it will quickly become an absolute mess.

Say a prospect has sent in his information to the Eligibility Center, including his decent transcripts, very bad ACT score, and very good SAT score. His grades, courses, and SAT score say he should be a qualifier. But the NCAA flags his SAT score and requests an inquiry. Obviously he will not be deemed a qualifier yet, right? Wrong:

Question: Will an inquiry to the testing agency, by itself, delay the release of the PSA’s final academic certification?

Answer: No. The SRRC directed staff to release the PSA’s final academic certification with the inclusion of the test score(s) that triggered the inquiry given the uncertainty in the timing of the testing agency’s review process and the fact that an inquiry may be submitted by any member of the general public at any time. In addition, inquiries submitted by an outside party or formal score reviews initiated by the testing agency often occur without the Eligibility Center’s knowledge. Therefore, the final academic certification will be released.

Put into plain English, this means that despite the fact that the NCAA has flagged the test score as suspect and asked the testing agency to investigate and possibly invalidate the score, the Eligibility Center will certify the prospect as a “Final Academic Qualifier”. The justification here also does not make sense. This is not an inquiry that came out of nowhere. This is one that the Eligibility Center, based on their own standards, requested and had knowledge of. It should be treated differently than an inquiry filed by some random booster from a rival school (which will probably now become a thing).

But wait, it gets worse:

Question: What is the anticipated timeline for the testing agency to review the inquiry and determine whether to initiate a formal score review?

Answer: Contact the testing agency with questions regarding the timing of its review process and the potential outcomes.

And even worse:

Question: If the Eligibility Center is notified that the testing agency has validated or canceled the PSA’s test score following an inquiry, will the Eligibility Center notify the institution(s) and PSA?

Answer: Yes. ACT will notify staff if an inquiry results in a cancellation or validation; however, SAT will only notify staff if an inquiry results in a cancellation. Thus, PSAs and institutions are advised to contact the testing agency regarding the timing and result of its review. In addition, please note that independent of the PSA review process, staff will notify the institution and PSA upon receiving notice that the testing agency has canceled an officially-reported test score.

To recap all this, the Eligibility Center will certify a prospect as a qualifier despite the fact that they have red-flagged a test score as suspect and requested a review by the testing agency. The timeline for that review is so opaque that the NCAA cannot even offer a suggestion about what it might be. And in the case of an SAT score, the review might be over, but no one at the SAT will tell the prospect, the institution, or the Eligibility Center that everything is ok.

For institutions and prospects, this is a Catch-22 nightmare. Because the prospect is a qualifier, his or her scholarship, NLI, and admission to the university are all still valid. But because there is an outstanding review that the institution knows about, they cannot possibly risk bringing the prospect onto campus, giving him or her financial aid, or allowing them to practice or play. But the prospect is a qualifier, so the NCAA says all of that is permitted. At least until the test score is invalidated.

The NCAA’s intent here is actually noble. This is what “innocent until proven guilty” looks like. But conference nonqualifier rules and the threat of retroactive penalties if the student-athlete is ultimately deemed a nonqualifier take what should be a fairly student-athlete friendly approach to this problem and just add uncertainty. The NCAA either needs to give schools and student-athletes a break when these inquiries result in invalidated test scores, or stick to their guns and say the prospect is not a qualifier until the test score inquiry is resolved.

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