Nicholas Alexander, a rising senior at Bentonville High School, is 8th in his class and captain of the swim team. He's shooting for top colleges - Washington University, Loyola and Northwestern - and has designed his course schedule with that in mind. But Nicholas - and 241 other rising seniors, more than half the class - were surprised to discover a week before school let out in May that they will be required to take a semester of physical education in fall. Now, Nicholas and other athletic and academically competitive seniors will have to drop the year-long advanced placement courses or favorite electives they planned to take to work in a semester of PE. For at least 30 years, Bentonville High School has considered participation in a sport equal to a semester of PE. Though it's had several audits over the years, the school district learned for the first time in March that it's practice did not comply with state department standards. The division of the state Education Department that audits districts could not estimate how many other schools, like Bentonville, are not requiring athletes to take PE or are out of compliance in other ways they offer PE. How schools offer p.e., and how much, is up for greater scrutiny. The state Health Department, in response to Act 1220 of 2003, has made a list of steps it thinks the Education Department should take to combat obesity in the student population. Among them: By the 2010-2011 school year, middle and high schools should provide 225 minutes of physical education a week. The Education Department, expected to consider the recommendations at its August meeting, may or may not go along with the Health Department. But some superintendents are wondering how they can require students whose day is already packed with courses to add one more. And if Bentonville district's problem is any example, schools are already having trouble getting PE right. Nicholas Alexander, for example, will have to drop either an AP government class or his senior band year to take PE. His mother, Lisa Alexander, fears it will cost him, both in class ranking and college admission, if he drops the AP course (grades in AP earn more points than the same grade in a non-AP course). And if he doesn't drop it, he'll have to miss "the big year they've been waiting for in band," and fill out the year with another semester of what Alexander called "some other ding-dong class" to graduate. Annette Barnes, the director of the state Education Department office that audits schools, said it was likely that her office hadn't caught the error sooner because auditing committees look at only a sample of student transcripts. This year, the first audit of the district in five years, the sample included transcripts of varsity athletes who'd graduated without taking a semester of department-sanctioned PE. And this year, thanks to the Act 1220, which "put teeth back into the standards," she said, her division can require compliance, rather than just give the district advice. State standards require that high schools offer 1 full year of PE to students. (Students only have to take 1 semester to graduate and a semester of health.) Bentonville Superintendent Dr. Larry Compton said the district was not meeting this rule, either, and Don Love, assistant superintendent for the the Springdale School District, said his district wasn't either. The districts offer various semester-long PE classes - from dance to volleyball - but under state standards, two semesters of different sports courses do not equate with a year of PE. Springdale has, however, gotten state department approval to substitute football and other sports for a semester of PE. They did so by applying an assessment "framework" equivalent to the department's. Compton said his district will use the Springdale model and submit it to the department for what he hopes will be quick approval. Compton has another concern: that requiring the seniors to take PE threatens the "senior out" program that allows those who've completed all necessary coursework and are on track to graduate to leave school early for work.