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: