The release last week of the final enrollment figures for the WIAA’s next two-year classification cycle sparked a lot of debate and discussion.
But there was one issue I was surprised that didn’t get raised. And that is the idea that trying to achieve competitive equity purely on enrollment numbers is antiquated at best and possibly outright flawed.
There are many factors that play into why some schools enjoy greater success in sports while others consistently struggle. And one of the biggest factors is money.
Last fall, The Columbian published a story looking at the recent success of local high school football programs and comparing that to the number of low-income students at each school who receive reduced or free lunches.
But I wanted to take it a step further.
So I started by looking at the enrollment figures the WIAA used two years ago to establish the current classification breakdown. And here’s how it broke down for the schools in 4A Greater St. Helens League:
• Battle Ground 1,740
• Skyview 1,635
• Heritage 1,471
• Union 1,458
• Camas 1,447
• Evergreen 1,320
So if enrollment is the best tool to determine competitive equity, then the athletic success of each school should line up with these numbers.
I looked up the average winning percentage in 4A GSHL play for each school in eight “team” sports (boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball and football) over the past year, and here are the results:
• Camas .723
• Union .721
• Skyview .717
• Battle Ground .406
• Evergreen .263
• Heritage .196
That doesn’t quite line up to the enrollment numbers. But what if we looked at the percentage at each school of students who do not receive free or reduced lunches:
• Camas .802
• Union .730
• Skyview .721
• Battle Ground .639
• Evergreen .492
• Heritage .491
Wow, that’s the exact same order as the winning percentages. But maybe that’s just the 4A GSHL. Let’s look at the 3A GSHL, starting with enrollment numbers:
• Kelso 1,266
• Hudson’s Bay 1,207
• Mountain View 1,206
• Fort Vancouver 1,188n Columbia River 1,131
• Prairie 1,118
And now let’s see how they line up with league winning percentages:
• Columbia River .750
• Mountain View .750
• Prairie .619
• Kelso .481
• Hudson’s Bay .225
• Fort Vancouver .175
Again, doesn’t quite line up. So let’s look at the percentage of students not on free or reduced lunch programs:
• Columbia River .760
• Prairie .708
• Mountain View .646
• Kelso .509
• Hudson’s Bay .362
• Fort Vancouver .271
Again, the numbers line up very close to the winning percentages.
In the next classification period, which will begin next fall, Bay’s enrollment fell enough to allow the Eagles to drop to 2A.
Columbia River’s numbers also fell to 2A levels, but the Chieftains decided to opt-up to 3A. Meanwhile, Fort was left at 3A.
In fact, River’s opt-up decision actually allowed Bay to slide down to 2A.
Look at those winning percentages. River at 2A, while Bay and Fort at 3A? It could have happened, because enrollment numbers would have allowed that to happen.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we do away with classification breakdowns based on enrollments. But I do think there is an opportunity to combine different data to come up with a better classification system.
Recently, there was a proposal in Oregon that would count each student on free or reduced lunch programs as 0.5 toward the school’s enrollment figure. But this idea was rejected.
The stumbling block was the stigma around counting someone as half a person. But that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re just trying to find a better classification number.
There are other issues that impact competitive equity. Among the smaller schools, a big issue is classifying private and public schools purely on enrollment numbers.
Again, economics play a role here, but so does location. Many small public schools are located in rural areas, while many private schools are in metropolitan areas, allowing for greater access to year-round training, coaching and club competition. That gives private schools a big edge.
Basing classifications purely on enrollment is somewhat antiseptic. It’s unemotional, and maybe the simplest way to do it (and if you’ve been following the process this year, you’ll know it’s not all that simple).
But it may not be the fairest. And that’s what the WIAA should be striving for — to provide the opportunity for students at every high school in the state to experience success, no matter how complicated it gets.
And simply counting enrollment numbers isn’t getting the job done.