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Now US presidents will reward students for academic as well as athletic prowess

To reward a youngster's physical prowess, the Johnson adminstration initiated the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. Now, Ronald Reagan has his own laurel to present.

High school students noted for running through math obstacles, computer science gymnastics, or adeptly tackling Thoreau are eligible to receive the Presidential Academic Fitness Award.

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''The response has been overwhelming,'' says Wayne Roberts, deputy undersecretary of the Department of Education, in an interview here.

''The letters went out this month, and we already have 2,000 schools nominating 30,000 seniors for awards. We've heard from every state in the nation ,'' he says.

Educators contacted were pleased, if less effusive.

''We've had the physical fitness program for so many years. I'm glad to finally see this. It's a small but positive step,'' says Lou Gappmayer, principal of Bozman Senior High School in Montana.

To qualify for the gold-colored pin and certificate signed by the President, seniors must meet three criteria:

* Attain a cumulative B-plus average through their high school years.

* Receive a score placing them at or above the 80th percentile on a national college achievement test (such as SAT.)

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* Be credited with a total of 12 course units in any one or some of the ''new basics'' - English, math, science, social studies, foreign languages, and computer science.

The award and the ''new basics'' courses originate from the National Commission on Excellence in Education report, the administration's much-ballyhooed blueprint for education reform.

Scott Widmeyer is glad Reagan is responding to the commission's report. But ''the response lacks substance,'' says the spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. ''I don't want to see the academic fitness program serve as a substitute for more direct federal efforts at improving education.''

Mr. Widmeyer complains that while the adminstration hands out awards and Congress debates school prayer for months, bills aimed at meeting the shortage of math and science teachers are languishing on the Hill.

Deputy Undersecretary Roberts, here to participate in a merit pay seminar, points out that the administration's $50 million science and math bill has passed the House and is awaiting Senate approval. But for the most part, he says , funding education reforms is the responsibility of state and local government. ''Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have already responded with reform packages.''

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