WASHINGTON—The number of high school students playing sports reached an all-time high this past school year, and the gap between the number of boys playing baseball and soccer narrowed, according to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey, released Tuesday.

The data, collected by the National Federation of State High School Associations, come from the 50 state high school athletic/activity associations, plus the District of Columbia.

In all, nearly 7,668,000 students participated in high school sports during the 2010-11 school year, an increase of almost 40,000 over 2009-10.

“While the overall increase was not as much as we’ve seen in the past few years, we are definitely encouraged with these totals given the financial challenges facing our nation’s high schools,” Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director, said in a press release. “The benefits of education-based athletics at the high school level are well-documented, and we encourage communities throughout the nation to keep these doors of opportunity open.”

The survey found 55.5 percent of students enrolled in high schools participated in athletics, Gardner said.

Not surprisingly, 11-player football sits at the top of the participation list, with 1,108,441 student-athletes participating during the 2010-11 school year. That sport saw a slight dip from the 2009-10 school year, when 1,109,279 student-athletes played.

Track and field had 579,302 male and 475,265 female athletes, while basketball attracted 545,844 male and 438,933 female student-athletes.

The survey found that the gap between the number of male baseball players and male soccer players, 471,025 vs. 398,351, had narrowed by 7,441 athletes this past school year.

Among girls sports, lacrosse experienced the greatest one-year increase, as an additional 6,155 girls—9 percent—participated this past school year. The increase put female lacrosse into the 10 most-played female sports in high school for the first time, passing golf.

The NFHS noted: “Although the rise in girls’ participation numbers was not as large this past year (due, in part, to significant drops in competitive-spirit numbers in two states), the percentage increase rate has more than doubled the rate for boys during the past 20 years—63 percent to 31 percent.”

“Twenty years ago, girls constituted 36 percent of the total number of participants; this past year, that number has climbed to 41 percent. In Oklahoma, the number of girls participants actually exceeded the number of boys this past year—44,112 to 42,694.”

When the survey broke down high school athletics participation by state, the top 15 states held their spots from last year, with Texas, California, and New York at the top, in that order. Texas and California each had more than 700,000 student-athletes participating in high school sports last year; New York, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan each had over 300,000.

Republished with permission from Education Week. Copyright © 2011 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.