CHAPEL HILL – UNC Chancellor Carol Folt joined other University leaders Friday to counter the findings of former athletic tutor Mary Willingham, who raised concerns about the literacy levels of student athletes. Faculty leadership said those claims were “erroneous” and derived from a vocabulary test that was not intended to measure reading levels.
At a packed Faculty Council meeting, Provost Jim Dean said Willingham’s research that purported a majority of Carolina’s student athletes read at a level no higher than eighth grade were based on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA). It is a vocabulary test that the University used to screen some student-athletes for potential learning differences/learning disabilities until the 2012-2013 school year. The SATA is not affiliated with the SAT administered by the College Board.
Dean said it is not intended to measure reading competency.
“I will make this personal. My conclusion, based on working with the team doing the analysis, is that any claim made based on this data set is virtually meaningless. It has been grossly unfair to our students. Many of you are faculty and have had these students in class. Using this data set to say that our students cannot read is a travesty,” Dean said.
University officials said they had not seen the full data set that Willingham shared with CNN until Monday in the now infamous article.
Willingham stated publicly that she repeatedly tried to share the data with University officials to raise awareness about the literacy problems she said she had observed.
As reported in the CNN article, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC football and basketball players from 2004 to 2012. She said that she found that 60 percent read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels.
Folt joined Dean and Steve Farmer, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions, to refute Willingham’s assertion.
“Those grade equivalents were never meant to predict grade equivalence and reading levels. They may, at best, [show] something about vocabulary, but they are not meant to [be interpreted] that way. It is a part of a bigger analysis you do when you do the whole series of tests,” Folt said.
After examining Willingham’s findings, CNN consulted its own “academic experts” and determined that the threshold for being college-literate is a score of 400 on the SAT critical reading or writing test. On the ACT, that threshold is 16.
CNN’s investigation revealed that in most schools, 7 to 18 percent of revenue-sport athletes read at an elementary school level.
Released Thursday, Carolina’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions used CNN’s definition to analyze UNC’s own SAT and ACT data for special-talent student-athletes enrolled as first-year students.
UNC’s analysis found that between 2004 and 2012, the same time period examined by CNN, Carolina enrolled 1,377 first-year student-athletes through the special-talent policies and procedures.
More than 97 percent of those students met the CNN threshold, according to UNC. Thirty-nine students, fewer than 3 percent, did not.
This data was released the same day University officials revoked Willingham’s research privileges. UNC said the suspension was due to violations of federal and University policies regarding the identification of individual students.
During the hour-long presentation to faculty, Dean shared that this has been a period of hardship for the University.
“Whether you believe the allegations or do not believe the allegations, it has been a source of pain across the University to whatever extent you believe what has been said—it is painful. This is either because you believe that there are some really ugly facts about the University, our admissions process and our student athletes, or you believe that there have been unfair accusations made, or perhaps some combination of the two,” Dean said.
Folt said that Willingham’s raw data set and methodology will be independently evaluated by an outside group, with a report based on the group’s findings to follow.