K-12 Education:

High School Sports Access and Participation

GAO-17-754R: Published: Sep 14, 2017. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2017.

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Jacqueline M. Nowicki
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What GAO Found

Access to and participation in sports varied more across different types of schools than by sex, according to GAO's analysis of Department of Education (Education) data. In school year 2013-14--the most recent year of data available--77 percent of public high schools offered sports, and these schools served 88 percent of all public high school students in the nation. According to GAO's analysis, access to public high school sports was lower in charter, urban, high-poverty and high-minority schools compared to other types of schools. Smaller percentages of students attended schools of those types that offered sports, and students in those school types had access to fewer sports teams per capita than students in other schools. Participation rates (i.e., participation as a percentage of enrollment) were also lower than average at charter, urban, high-poverty and high-minority schools. For example, in traditional schools, students participated in sports at a rate of 39 percent, compared with 19 percent for charter schools. In public high schools that offered sports in school year 2013-14, boys and girls had similar access to sports and teams, but more boys participated in sports. About 50 percent of public high school sports and teams were for boys and about 50 percent were for girls. However, a larger percentage of the students who participated in sports were boys (57 percent boys versus 43 percent girls). Also, in terms of participation as a percentage of enrollment, boys participated at a higher rate than girls (43 percent and 34 percent, respectively). The relationship between girls' and boys' participation rates varied among schools. Among all students attending public high schools that offered sports, the majority (77 percent) attended schools where girls' participation rates were lower than boys' participation rates. However, 19 percent of students attended schools where girls' participation rates were equal to or higher than their male peers.

Why GAO Did This Study

Organized sports have long been a part of the American high school experience for boys. However, the same has not been historically true for girls, who began playing high school sports in large numbers only after the passage of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments (Title IX). Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities by recipients of federal financial assistance, with limited exceptions. The Department of Education's Title IX regulations require schools to provide equal athletic opportunities for members of both sexes. However, researchers have found that girls' access to and participation in high school interscholastic sports programs has not reached parity with boys. In light of Title IX requirements and interest in the opportunities available to students in public high schools, GAO was asked to examine access to and participation in high school interscholastic sports programs. This report describes how, if at all, access to and participation in public high school interscholastic sports vary by certain school characteristics and sex.

Title IX applies to elementary, middle, and high schools that receive federal financial assistance. However, the scope of this report is limited to high school interscholastic sports programs because accurate and reliable data are available for public high schools. To conduct this review, GAO analyzed school year 2013-14 data from two Education datasets. GAO analyzed data from Education's Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) on whether public high schools offered sports, and the number of sports and teams they offered to determine students' access to sports. GAO also analyzed CRDC data to determine students' participation in sports by sex. GAO supplemented data from CRDC with data from the Common Core of Data (CCD) to analyze differences in access to and participation in public high school sports by the following school characteristics--school type (traditional public schools or charter schools); locale (urban, suburban, or rural); poverty level; and minority level. GAO determined that both datasets were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this report. GAO's analyses of Education's data in this report are intended to describe access to and participation in sports by selected school characteristics and sex. GAO did not conduct a legal compliance review, and the analysis of data should not be used to make conclusions about the presence or absence of unlawful discrimination in high school interscholastic sports programs.

What GAO Recommends 

GAO is not making recommendations.

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.

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