UNC-Chapel Hill leaders on Friday presented a detailed refutation of the data used by a learning specialist to claim that some university athletes could only read at elementary or middle-school levels.
At a faculty meeting, Provost Jim Dean showed slides and test samples to call into question the conclusions of Mary Willingham, the university employee whose claims made national news on CNN last week. Her study on athletes has been suspended by UNC-CH’s Institutional Review Board because of rules that protect the identities of human subjects in research, the university said.
In an hourlong discussion at UNC-CH’s Faculty Council, Dean – along with Chancellor Carol Folt and the head of admissions, Steve Farmer – went through electronic slides to bolster their argument that the CNN report, and Willingham’s allegations, are flawed. The packed meeting capped more than a week of explosive headlines and TV reports that suggested some UNC-CH athletes were ill-prepared for college work and doomed to failure.
“Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university,” Dean said. “These claims have been unfair to the students, unfair to the admissions officers, unfair to the university.”
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The test Willingham used to diagnose reading skill, called the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults, was a 10-minute reading vocabulary test that is not recommended alone to judge overall literacy, Dean said. And, he added, Willingham apparently misinterpreted the results of the data by presenting standard scores as grade equivalents, rendering her conclusions “virtually meaningless.”
He showed a blank exam as an example. Each question had four words, and the test-taker has to decide whether some of the words are synonyms, antonyms or unrelated. There were no reading comprehension passages.
Dean said he and three others, including the head of the university’s academic support program for athletes, collectively spent more than 200 hours analyzing Willingham’s data this week. The university will also have the data and Willingham’s methodology independently evaluated.
Willingham said in a phone interview after the meeting that the test is more than a 10-minute vocabulary test. It also includes a writing portion in which the athletes would have been asked to write a paragraph based on questions, she said.
“It was a combination of the SATA reading and writing (tests) and the SAT and ACT scores,” Willingham said of her data.
CNN’s report also used SAT and ACT thresholds as indicative of reading levels. But Farmer, the admissions chief, said UNC-CH evaluates applicants based on a wide array of criteria beyond standardized test scores, including grades and teacher evaluations.
The abilities tests
The SATA tests were administered by Lyn Johnson, who Willingham said is a co-investigator in the research project. Johnson had been contracted by the athletic department. The tests were given to academically at-risk athletes who were attending the second summer session at UNC before they began their first year in school.
Johnson could not be reached.
Of 183 academically at-risk athletes during the eight-year period, 60 percent read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels, Willingham has said. An additional 8 percent to 10 percent were functionally illiterate, she said.
On Friday, Willingham said she did not misread the vocabulary scores. But she added that she was hard-pressed to explain because the review board had suspended her research. She said she fears talking about the data could cost her the review board reapproval she is now seeking.
‘Just doesn’t happen’
Folt, an environmental scientist, explained why the board halted Willingham’s work. In 2008, Willingham had applied to do the research, but the board had concluded that its oversight was not necessary because Willingham had said the study participants’ identities would not be known by the researchers. The IRB stepped in this week when it became clear that Willingham collected and retained data tied to the subjects’ identities, Folt said.
“That is not a small thing in higher education,” she said. “That just doesn’t happen.”
Some faculty praised Folt and Dean for their presentation. Others said they worried about the damage to the university from the continued revelations after the scandals involving athletics and academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies Department.
Richard Weinberg, a professor of cell biology and physiology, said the board’s decision to suspend the research could turn into “a real mess,” even if there was a good explanation for it. “I certainly hope that there was no external pressure put on the IRB,” he said.
Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science, said the presentation Friday sounded like “a stonewall.”
“What I see so far, unfortunately, is a strategy of denial and almost anger or resentment when these allegations are being brought up,” he said, “when they could be brought up anywhere and our university could take this opportunity to become a leader ... to make some real reforms.”
Shielda Rodgers, a nursing professor, said she is concerned about the impact on student athletes.
“I don’t want to see them victimized as a result of all of this media attention because they are really good students for the most part,” she said. The room erupted in applause.
‘No joy in this’
Folt said the presentation was not “about attacking people who are in good faith acting to try to change things.”
But the dissection of Willingham’s data had the feel of a courtroom prosecution at times. Dean showed a handwritten note by Willingham to refute one claim.
About Willingham’s data, he said, “I’m not trying to play some kind of trick with this data. ... I take no joy in this. I think it’s very sad, actually.”
A third person who worked with Willingham and Johnson, Richard Southall, said his role was to put together a team to vet the data and findings that they produced.
Southall, now director of the College Sports Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, said he had not had the chance to examine the data, and the controversy surrounding the project might have been avoided if Willingham had waited before sharing her findings with others.
“If I were Mary, I would not have gone to CNN,” he said.
Dean said that Willingham is still employed at the university and that there is no plan to change that. He called this a painful chapter that played out on the national stage.
“People have been believing these things, when there’s just no proof whatsoever that they’re true,” he said, “so it’s given us a black eye.”