Transferable Skills: The Positive Correlation between Student Athletics and Academic Performance

“There is the perception out there,” says Texas Tech University professor Angela Lumpkin, “that high school athletics are positive — that they teach life skills and leadership skills, and all these wonderful values — which, as a former high school athlete, and former coach at the college level, I totally agree with. But, it’s one thing to say that it’s true, and another thing to have some data to substantiate that feeling.”

THE STORY OF THE DATA

Lumpkin, now Chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Management at Texas Tech, launched two separate studies earlier in her career, when she was a professor at the University of Kansas. The above sentiment served as inspiration for the inquiry, but despite coming into the research with the feeling that these afterschool athletics programs were in fact positively correlated with academic performance factors, the early stages of acquiring the necessary data were anything but smooth.

“I went to the Kansas State High School Activities Association leadership, and asked if they would provide me with all the high school rosters for all sports for that year,” Lumpkin says. “First off, they were suspicious — what’s my ulterior motive, what am I trying to get, etc. I had to convince them that I wanted to substantiate what they already believed — but even then, they would not release the data to me. They operate under the auspices of the Kansas State Department of Education — I was a former Dean of the College of Education [at the University of Kansas], so I was able to go there [to the KSDE] and convince them to work with me. And they were wonderful.”

These types of struggles with obtaining the basic data necessary to conduct a scholarly study of performance and outcomes are likely why there have been relatively few such studies conducted. Data security and privacy have perhaps never been more at the forefront than they are now, and while the study Lumpkin references — the first of her two on high school athletics in Kansas — was conducted several years ago, that same concern initially affected her ability to have access to the information she would need.

But that would soon change. After working directly with the KSDE, Lumpkin went back to the KSHSAA, and they released student-level data to the KSDE . That data was then scrubbed of student names and other identification data by the KSDE, and replaced with a system where each student was assigned a unique identification number.

“The academic data I’m talking about are mostly standardized test scores and other information in the state’s data warehouse. It was still incomplete at that time, because they hadn’t finished the state data warehouse, but they [theKSDE ] then gave us the ‘composite’ data, if you will, so that we would then be able to do the analysis we had wanted to do.”

Table 3 from Lumpkin and Favor’s study, “Comparing the Academic Performance of High School Athletes and Non-Athletes in Kansas in 2008–2009”

With the data in hand, Lumpkin and co-author Judy Favor, were able to proceed with the first project, which eventually became “Comparing the Academic Performance of High School Athletes and Non-Athletes in Kansas in 2008–2009,” published in the Journal of Sport Administration & Supervision, Vol. 4, №1 in 2012. And, the language from the introduction to the study can easily be applied to the present economic conditions facing schools:

In the current economic climate, the debate over whether participation in high school extracurricular activities including sports enhances or detracts from the educational achievement of participants has resurfaced. Proponents of extracurricular activities and sports believe these opportunities enhance academic performance, especially when students must meet specific levels of academic achievement to maintain eligibility. Unfortunately, school districts across the country have encountered major reductions in state and local funding, forcing administrators to identify areas for budget reductions and opening the door for opponents who might target extracurricular activities as easy choices.[1]

“Cut to the chase, we did all of our analysis, and came up with some very substantive data to indicate exactly what we had hoped we would find, which were positive things — and again, these are not causal data, these are correlational data, but there is a strong correlation between academic performance in high school and playing on a sports team.”

She adds: “Surprise, surprise — we already knew that, but now we had data to substantiate that.”

As Lumpkin alludes to above, it’s not enough to have a feeling or sense that something works — something that, like concern over data security, has never been more important.

“Cut to the chase, we did all of our analysis, and came up with some very substantive data to indicate exactly what we had hoped we would find, which were positive things — and again, these are not causal data, these are correlational data, but there is a strong correlation between academic performance in high school and playing on a sports team.” —Professor Angela Lumpkin

The numbers speak for themselves. Take this, for example, from the same study: “Of the 17,249 non-athletes for whom data were available, 88.1% graduated with 2,323 failing to graduate. Of the 12,218 athletes, 97.6% graduated and 303 failed to graduate.”[2]

A similar analysis of LAUSD student-athletes versus non-athletes based on the 2012–2013 and 2013–2014 academic years (published by LAUSD[3]) included numbers that looked similar: a 77% graduation rate for non-athletes, while student-athletes graduated at a rate of 92%.

Lumpkin’s second study, co-authored by Rebecca Achen and published in 2015, echoed the above examples. The same trends were evident in terms of academic performance (GPA) — athletes consistently performed better in both Lumpkin’sstudies, as well as that of LAUSD, and numerous other examples.

So compelling are these historical data that they have also inspired research into the idea that setting minimum academic performance for eligibility in sports programs may in fact be wrongheaded, since involvement in sports may positively affect key academic factors.

“The second study [‘Participation in Interscholastic Sports: Do the Academic Performances of Athletes and Non-Athletes Differ,’ International Journal of Sport Management, Volume 16, pp. 601–619] had more academic data, and again verified that correlation. The thing that was most exciting to the KSHSAA, was that for both studies, I wrote up an executive summary — something that they began to share throughout the state.”

Small wonder, with the growing need to show impact using data in order to increase access to funding opportunities. However, that research, and the sweat equity required to acquire the necessary data to perform analyses like those above, can be a roadblock.

“It’s very time-consuming research to do, which is why there are so few studies like this,” explains Lumpkin. “Besides how time-consuming the research is, getting access to the data at the state level for all the athletes is just hard to do. That’s why people would do it inside of a school system. You really have to have access to the initial data, and that’s just hard to get.”

One thing is certain: Going forward, access to data will be critical in order to perform the kind of analysis that shows the impact of extracurricular activities and afterschool programming, like the above studies. And, those data will be increasingly important, as funding cuts to out-of-school time programs are once again being proposed at the federal level.

About the author:
Written by Bryan Kitch, Content and Social Media Manager at UpMetrics, a data visualization platform built to analyze, and interpret data, allowing programs to make better decisions, build capacity, and increase access to funding opportunities.

About UpMetrics:
At UpMetrics, our goal is to provide support and infrastructure when it comes to both data collection (participant information, taking attendance) and data analysis. Because the team at UpMetrics is made up of former athletic directors and teachers, we understand that one of the difficulties facing programs is data entry — often, there just isn’t bandwidth.

That’s why we’ve streamlined data collection and analysis.

Through our partnership with ActivityHero (online registration) and UpActive (our group management app), we’ve made it easier for coaches and managers at the ground level. This data can then be integrated in UpMetrics, our premium data visualization platform, giving administrators a high-level view of program-wide performance within 24 hours.

Learn more at www.upmetrics.com.

Footnotes:
[1] Journal of Sport Administration & Supervision, Vol. 4, №1, p. 42

[2] Journal of Sport Administration & Supervision, Vol. 4, №1, p. 48

[3] LAUSD Interscholastic Athletic Department Presentation to the Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Committee, p. 3

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Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

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Athlete, artist, writer. Content Marketing Manager at @cerego. Twitter: @bryankitch