UNC: Student-athlete literacy claims lack valid data

Apr. 11, 2014 @ 10:42 PM

Three experts hired by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say data cited by Mary Willingham doesn’t support her allegations about literacy problems among student-athletes.

On Friday, UNC officials released reports by professors from the University of Minnesota, University of Georgia and University of Virginia who examined Willingham’s data and found it lacking.

“Based on their independent analyses, all three experts found that the data set did not support the public claims,” stated the UNC Office of the Provost in an executive summary of those reports. “They found no evidence in the data to support the claims of widespread low literacy levels among tested UNC student-athletes.”

The professors received $5,000 each in non-state funds for participating in the analysis, according to UNC officials.

Those experts also concluded that most of the students referenced by Willingham scored at or above college-entry level on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA) – not to be confused with the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

The SATA consists of 25 questions in a multiple-choice vocabulary test that can be used to screen for possible learning disabilities. Willingham’s data dealt with 176 new student-athletes between 2004 and 2012.

UNC’s hired analysts said that:

- The SATA vocabulary test isn’t a true reading test and shouldn’t be used to draw conclusions about student reading ability.
- Reading ability shouldn’t be reported as grade equivalents.
- SATA subtests were given in low-stakes settings, with unimportant consequences to the taker, which could influence results.
- Such tests can help screen for learning disabilities, but aren’t accepted by psychologists as an appropriate measure of literacy.

Willingham, a learning specialist at UNC, has alleged that 60 percent of student-athletes tested during that eight-year period couldn’t read at a high-school level. About 10 percent of them couldn’t read above a third-grade level, she said.

Although the experts clearly refuted the grade-level claims, their reports didn’t discount fundamental concerns about vocabulary understanding among student-athletes – especially African-American males. One noted that despite the apparent inaccuracy of Willingham’s assessments, it did appear that many students in her data set had an understanding of vocabulary below the national average.

The university’s announcement Friday didn’t come as any surprise to Willingham. She told an audience of students at N.C. Central University the night before that she expected it.

Still, she said, it’s troubling.

“For now I will just say that I am disappointed that the university neglected to take even the most basic steps to ensure the integrity, impartiality, and fairness of its supposedly ‘independent’ review of my data,” Willingham said.

“The fact that they engaged in this exercise without ever seeking input from me or my research partner, and without the raw scores, or an examination of the full battery of tests (on a majority of these same athletes) available in Accessibility Resources speaks volumes about the true motivations behind today’s press release.”

She went on to say that UNC personnel who could verify her claims are “forced to remain silent.”

The university’s provost, James Dean, said in a published statement that important questions must be answered about balancing athletics and
academics “both here at Carolina and across the nation.”

“Carolina is committed to participating actively in that conversation,” he said. “We also understand that there are lingering questions about our programs, which is why we initiated an independent inquiry that is ongoing.”

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