UNC-Chapel Hill begins crunching data on reading levels

Jan. 17, 2014 @ 08:34 PM

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and other university administrators presented preliminary data findings on student-athlete reading levels Friday to the UNC Faculty Council, some calling the research made public last week “erroneous” and a “travesty.”

The CNN report published last week stated that some former UNC basketball and football athletes didn’t know how to read or write, or couldn’t read beyond an eighth-grade level.

The UNC employee who shared her research with CNN, Mary Willingham, and university administrators had been deadlocked for days over whether UNC already had the dataset available to go over her findings.

“There are millions of pieces of data that a university owns, so to say ‘You have the data’ doesn’t really make sense unless someone tells you what subset of data are even being referred to,” Folt said.

Willingham shared her dataset with UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday, and UNC Provost James Dean Jr. said four university researchers have spent more than 200 hours analyzing her research.

So far, according to Dean’s report to the Faculty Council, the numbers aren’t adding up.

Willingham, a UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling employee, told CNN that she examined the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. According to her research, 60 percent read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels, and between 8 and 10 percent read below a third-grade level. She said this remains a problem at UNC.

She also told The Herald-Sun she used SAT and ACT scores, along with reading scores from the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA), to determine the reading levels of UNC student-athletes.

The university is challenging CNN’s and Willingham’s claims that 60 percent of student-athletes, or about 125 individuals, between 2004 and 2012 read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

“To the best of my recollection, CNN didn’t ask us for any SAT or ACT data,” said Stephen Farmer, UNC vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions.

The university has found that out of 341 student-athletes recruited to participate in UNC revenue sports, specifically football and men’s and women’s basketball, 34 did not meet the “college literacy” threshold determined by CNN’s academic experts.

Out of those 34, 20 have graduated or remain enrolled and in good academic standing, and 10 left the university but are eligible to return, Farmer said.

Farmer added that students who did not meet this threshold had been evaluated further for enrollment based on GPA, information from their high schools, letters of recommendation and evidence “of commitment to pursue their education.”

During Dean’s presentation, he said the university did have some data that overlapped with Willingham’s, but they had never received any of her findings before Monday.

On one of the presentation slides was a handwritten note from Willingham to a UNC attorney, stating, “My learning disabilities-athletes files are not included-FERPA,” which means she couldn’t share her data due to the federal law, FERPA, that protects the privacy of student education records.

When detailing UNC’s analysis to faculty members, Dean said Willingham’s research was based largely on a reading vocabulary subtest of the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA), which is 25 questions and takes 10 minutes to complete.

Dean said he consulted with the company that produces SATA, and someone at the company said the subtest could not be used by itself to determine reading levels.

The company would not go on the record after consulting with a lawyer, but UNC is now consulting with other academic experts to examine the test’s validity in relation to determining reading levels.

“In conclusion, serious accusations have been made about the literacy levels of our students, based on a 10-minute test that is, at best, an incomplete and inaccurate indication of reading ability,” Dean said. “...Any claim made based on using this dataset is virtually meaningless, and it’s been grossly unfair to our students. Many of you are faculty out there, you’ve had these students in class. Using this dataset to say students cant read is a travesty.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institutional Review Board, an independent governing body comprised of faculty researchers, staff and community members, is now reviewing Willingham and her research based on concerns that some of her published data can be linked to individual students.

UNC Vice Chancellor for Research Barbara Entwisle said the IRB reports to her, and when it became clear through media reports that that dataset included names, the board determined a review and further approval was needed for Willingham to continue with her research.

“We couldn’t understand how the data could be usable without identifiers in them,” Entwisle said.

During the Faculty Council meeting Friday, a faculty member commented that the notion of Willingham “picking on” athletes was “absurd,” because she used to work 40- to 50-hour weeks helping student-athletes succeed. That comment was met by applause from the room.

Shielda Rodgers with the UNC School of Nursing said that through her own research she has determined that SAT scores are not a valid predictor of success in higher education, especially not for minority students. 

“While we are pained by all this that is happening to our wonderful university ... think of what the pain must be like for that athlete out there, so that when they sit in your class now, somebody’s going to look at them and say they probably think that (they) can’t read or write,” Rodgers said.

When UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams was asked again about the data findings Friday, he cut off the question.

"Let me stop you,” Williams said. “I have absolutely, absolutely nothing to say about that. … There’s a lot of things I’d like to say, but it’s not Saturday Night Live.”

In an email to The Associated Press, Willingham said she is scheduled to go before the review board next week to go through the approval process.
"My data is 100 percent correct," Willingham said. "In addition, I worked with the overwhelming majority of the students in the data set on reading and writing skills between 2004 and 2010.
"It's interesting that my IRB was pulled and I was told that I could not talk about it until it was resolved, meanwhile the provost is allowed to discuss the findings. That is what is truly erroneous about all of this — and at a research university — wow. At UNC we protect our brand at all costs."