A trio of experts hired by UNC-Chapel Hill to review claims of subpar reading skills among more than 120 athletes found broad problems with whistleblower Mary Willingham’s research, the university said Friday.
The university said that its experts, hired from three universities, independently found that many of the student-athletes scored “at or above college entry level” on one test involved with Willingham’s work. The university said the experts found she had relied too heavily on that test to assign reading levels to athletes.
“(I)t appears the technical calculations reported from the initial data were inaccurate,” wrote one of the experts, Dennis Kramer, a higher education professor at the University of Virginia. “This analysis finds that less than seven percent of UNC student-athletes possessed a reading level between fourth and eighth grade.”
Willingham, a former learning specialist for athletes, had caused a national stir this year with her assertions that 60 percent of athletes tested for learning disabilities over an eight-year period were reading below a high-school level and that an additional 8 to 10 percent were functionally illiterate.
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In a statement released Friday, she pointed out that the analyses of her research did not draw on the individual tests given to the athletes and that the three experts weren’t given additional information that she said she used to reach her findings.
“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) ... speaks volumes about the true motivations behind today’s press release,” Willingham said in the statement. She could not be reached for an interview.
In an interview, UNC Provost James W. Dean Jr. said he didn’t give the experts the athletes’ tests because Willingham said her findings were based on the data.
Over the past year, Willingham had been talking publicly about her research into athlete literacy. In January, a CNN report featured Willingham’s findings for a broader look at athlete literacy in schools that participate in the NCAA’s top division. CNN reported, and Willingham confirmed, that of 183 athletes tested for potential learning disabilities from 2004 to 2012, 60 percent read below the high school level.
Willingham said she based her findings on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults, as well as ACT and SAT scores and her experiences tutoring the students. One of the experts reported Friday that it is possible to determine a reading-grade level with that combination of information.
The CNN report created a firestorm on campus, and later in January, Dean and Chancellor Carol Folt attacked Willingham’s findings at a Faculty Council meeting. Dean called her research “a travesty.”
The review concluded Friday included analyses done by three experts in education testing. Along with Kramer, the group included Nathan R. Kuncel and Lee Branum-Martin, psychology professors at the University of Minnesota and Georgia State University, respectively.
Their reports threw cold water on the use of the SATA to determine reading levels. They said the test was old, biased against minorities and particularly ineffective in determining reading levels below the 10th grade.
Kuncel said the results should be discounted because there was no obvious motivation for the athletes to score well – such as to graduate – which possibly made it a “low-stakes” test.
The trio pointed to flaws or gaps in the data, such as scores for 176 test subjects instead of the 183 Willingham had publicly cited. The data also lacked the ages for some of the athletes tested.
Kramer wrote that he “could not find any analytical approach that produced the 60 percent reported (by Willingham) from the data provided.”
But the three also cited a paucity of information about the athletes’ reading abilities that did not allow for a clear determination of how well they performed. Branum-Martin said the lack of data caused him to recommend that “UNC build a full database of all athlete test scores ... in order to ensure appropriate allocation of services to student skills as well as to evaluate the quality of tests being used.”
The literacy debate flows out of the long-running academic fraud scandal at UNC. In 2011, Willingham had revealed to The News & Observer a long-standing practice within the African and Afro-American Studies department that converted lecture-style classes into quasi-independent studies that never met and only required a paper at the end.
She said the athlete tutoring program steered academically challenged athletes into these classes, which typically awarded high grades, to help keep them eligible to play sports.
University officials have since acknowledged those classes were academically corrupt and cheated students out of an education. But two investigations led or backed by the university determined the classes were not created specifically to benefit athletes because non-athletes also attended and represented 55 percent of the enrollments.
Folt and Dean have since acknowledged an athletic component to the scandal because athletes make up about 5 percent of the student body. A third investigation is now underway, run by Kenneth Wainstein, a former Justice Department official who also has investigated NCAA misconduct.
The N&O had asked UNC to produce the SATA tests that the athletes took to get beyond the debate about Willingham’s data and seek to answer questions about athletes’ academic preparedness. The request included asking the university to redact athletes’ names and other identifying information.
The university denied the request, saying the records were not public under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.