Q&A in the dispute over athletes’ literacy between UNC and the former tutor Willingham

dkane@newsobserver.comFebruary 22, 2014 

Since the early 1990s, educators and others have been using the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults to identify learning deficits for college students, workers and prison inmates. Experts say it is a reliable indicator to screen for those who struggle with reading, writing or math.

Today it is at the center of a high-profile battle between a veteran learning specialist and the university where she works. Mary Willingham says that test has helped identify more than 100 athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill who could not read at the high school level, including some she identified as “functionally illiterate.”

Willingham is the former employee with the athletes’ tutoring program who blew the whistle on dozens of African studies classes that never met. That is not in dispute. But her findings on athlete literacy drew a harsh rebuttal from UNC’s provost, who said she overstated the test’s diagnostic abilities and misinterpreted the results.

“Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university,” Jim Dean said last month. “These claims have been unfair to the students, unfair to the admissions officers, unfair to the university.”

Until the data becomes public and is interpreted by independent experts, it may not be known who is closer to the mark on the results. But what is known about the testing raises questions for Willingham and the university. Willingham, for example, trumpeted findings that had not been vetted by a co-investigator, and Lyn Johnson, the neuropsychologist who conducted the tests and tallied the scores, isn’t talking.

UNC officials, on the other hand, appeared to never question these tests before, which Johnson had administered for roughly a decade to UNC athletes suspected of being academically challenged. That UNC contracted for such testing at all suggests it had worries it was admitting athletes who would struggle academically.

Willingham says when UNC officials realized those tests were the backbone of her findings, they ended Johnson’s contract. UNC officials have not responded to a month-old request to provide information about Johnson’s work.

Willingham said she stands by her findings and accused Dean of misinterpreting the data. She said Dean’s analysis does not give the full picture of the testing conducted into the athletes’ academic abilities.

Here are questions and answers about where things stand:

Q: Why did the national media take a sudden interest in this story?

A: The New York Times published a front-page story on New Year’s Day about the December indictment of Julius Nyang’oro, the longtime African studies chairman, on a fraud charge. It is an unheard-of charge connected to a bizarre case – more than 200 lecture-style classes that date as far back to the mid-1990s that are either suspected or confirmed of never having met. The case had been covered here, but that Times story attracted the attention of Bloomberg Businessweek Assistant Managing Editor Paul Barrett, who has devoted several columns to the scandal. And in mid-January, CNN broadcast a report on the reading levels of football and men’s basketball players that relied heavily on the UNC scandal. CNN used research by Willingham, who told The N&O about the no-show classes in August 2011.

Q: What did Willingham’s research involve?

A: Willingham earned her master’s degree from UNC-Greensboro by writing a thesis that examined the history of college sports and the conflicts of interest created when colleges make millions of dollars off of football and basketball by enrolling athletes who aren’t paid but are promised access to a college education. The paper also cited athletes entering UNC in the 2006-07 academic year with learning disabilities, many of which weren’t diagnosed until the athletes arrived on campus. Willingham took her work a step further by examining the tests used to identify those disabilities to report that of the 183 athletes tested from 2005 to 2012, 60 percent were reading between a fourth- and eighth-grade level and another 10 percent read below that, which she characterized as “functionally illiterate.”

Q: What do experts say about the SATA?

A: It is more of a tool to identify learning deficits, but not specific to a grade level. James R. Patton, one of the creators of the 23-year-old test, said “it is not an in-depth reading test ... (but) it does give a feel for someone’s reading ability.” It is a battery of six tests, with two each for reading, writing and math. The two reading tests are a vocabulary quiz, which asks subjects to identify antonyms and synonyms from lists of words, and a reading comprehension test that requires subjects to answer questions after reading a short passage. It is clear that the athletes took the vocabulary test, but not clear whether they took the reading comprehension test. Willingham said athletes were first tested on the vocabulary, and if they did poorly they were given the reading comprehension test. She said her findings do not pinpoint reading at a certain grade-level, but provide a range, such as below high-school or below a fourth-grade level. She also said she used SAT and ACT scores, along with her personal experiences tutoring the athletes, to reach her findings.

Q: Should the SAT or ACT be used to determine grade-level reading ability?

A: Experts we talked to, such as Matthew K. Burns, a University of Minnesota professor of educational psychology, said those scores alone should not be used for that purpose. But he acknowledged they can be used to corroborate other tests that do measure reading ability. One of the experts cited by CNN, Richard Southall, director of the College Sports Research Institute that recently moved from UNC to the University of South Carolina, said the low test scores are indicative of students with literacy deficits that would make it hard for them to succeed in college. He said he did not assign a specific grade level for reading and added that was beside the point.

Q: Will the data be made public?

A: That’s not clear. Willingham initially said she can’t because UNC’s institutional review board has shut down the project. She has since said she couldn’t, on the advice of attorneys. The university has not said whether it will make the data public. Dean has said he is having the data reviewed independently, but the entity that is supposed to be doing that analysis has not yet been named.

Q: Is there anecdotal evidence that some athletes struggled to do college-level work?

A: Yes. In September 2012, The N&O reported on documents from within the athletes’ tutoring program that showed several freshman football players had been placed in a no-show African studies class because they were academically challenged. A tutor who was concerned about the athletes’ ability to write the paper for that class was told not to worry. “Just remember,” an academic counselor told her in an email, “guys are in this class for a reason – at-risk, probation, struggling students – you are making headway … keep it positive and encouraging!” Former UNC football and basketball player Julius Peppers’ transcript showed the good grades he received in suspected or confirmed no-show classes were what kept him eligible to play. He received Ds and Fs in most of his classes outside of the African studies department.

Q: What’s next?

A: On Friday, Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC system President Tom Ross announced that a prominent attorney and U.S. Justice Department veteran, Kenneth L. Wainstein, had been brought in for a new investigation into the academic fraud. Dean, the provost, says he is studying the history of the African studies department. The N&O has sued for records showing how many athletes, particularly football and men’s basketball players, were enrolled in the earliest known classes. UNC has refused to provide this information, saying it could potentially identify athletes. Meanwhile, Nyang’oro’s case progresses in the courts, and the district attorney has indicated a second person who is not a current UNC employee is still under investigation.

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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