Outside Experts Say Willingham's Claims Not Supported by Her Research

Three outside experts retained by the University have found no evidence to support claims made by UNC learning specialist Mary Willingham that some athletes’ reading abilities have not squared with the requirements of college work.

Carolina’s ongoing concern about athletics and academics dates to fall 2010; this aspect emerged in January, when Willingham became the focus of a CNN story about its investigation into academic problems with athletes at schools across the country. Willingham told CNN that she had met many athletes who could not read or write at a level acceptable for college work. She said the research showed that 60 percent of 183 athletes at Carolina between 2004 and 2012 who were considered upon admission to Carolina to be at risk for academic failure read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels and that 8 percent to 10 percent read below a third-grade level.

Officials in South Building reacted quickly and began scouring her research. Based on what they saw, Provost James Dean said on Jan. 17 at a Faculty Council meeting that any claim made on the basis of the data on the 183 athletes “is virtually meaningless.” He added: “Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this University. And these claims have been unfair to the students, unfair to the admission officers, unfair to the University.”

UNC then enlisted three outside experts to independently analyze and report on the data set. The group of students in question were first-year athletes who had been screened for possible learning differences or learning disabilities between 2004 and 2012.

According to a University statement released Friday, the data set comprised results of a Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA) Reading Vocabulary subtest — a 25-question, multiple-choice vocabulary test — given to 176 new athletes in the eight-year period.

The statement said that those outside experts “also determined that the majority of the students referenced in the public claims scored at or above college entry level on the SATA Reading Vocabulary subtest. The data set was based on those scores.”

The reports were produced by faculty in psychology or education: Dr. Nathan Kuncel, Distinguished Professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota; Dr. Lee Alan Branum-Martin, associate professor of psychology and co-investigator in the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy at Georgia State University; and Dennis Kramer, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Virginia.

The University said it hired the experts based on their knowledge of adult literacy, assessment and measurement in education, and multivariate analysis. UNC paid each of them $5,000 for the work.

An executive summary of the report, posted at, was produced by the Office of the Provost and approved by the independent experts, according to Friday’s statement.

UNC officials noted that the 176 athletes in the data set represented a small fraction of 1,800 total athletes who attended Carolina between 2004 and 2012. The University said that those students took the SATA Reading Vocabulary subtest shortly after arriving on campus as part of a screening process to identify possible learning differences or learning disabilities — a practice that UNC said is common at many NCAA Division I universities.

Although the experts worked independently of one another, they reached similar conclusions. Their findings include:

1. “The SATA RV subtest, a 25-question multiple choice vocabulary test is not a true reading test and should not be used to draw conclusions about student reading ability.”

2. “The data do not support the public claims about the students’ reading ability.”

3. “Reading ability should not be reported as grade equivalents.”

4. “The difference in demographics between the SATA test norm and the demographics of the UNC student-athletes is important to understanding conclusions that can be drawn from the data.”

5. “The SATA subtests were administered in low-stakes settings, meaning that the result of the test had relatively unimportant consequences to the taker. Low-stakes settings are thought to influence test results.”

6. “While SATA RV [the 25-question, multiple choice vocabulary subtest] results can be informative as part of screening for learning differences and/or disabilities, they are not accepted by the psychological community as an appropriate measure of reading grade level and literacy.”

The question of whether some students involved in athletics were able to do college work has been relatively short-lived; for more than three years, UNC has been in the news related to questions about athletics and coursework, including the indictment in December of Julius Nyang’oro, the former chair of UNC’s former department of African and Afro-American studies (often referred to as AFAM). Nyang’oro faces a felony charge of obtaining property by false pretenses — specifically, taking $12,000 in pay despite not showing up to teach a class. Nyang’oro’s first court appearance is scheduled for April 29.

In the AFAM line of inquiry, the University announced in February that UNC System President Tom Ross ’75 (JD) and Chancellor Carol L. Folt had retained an outside attorney to conduct an independent inquiry based on new information that may become available.

Kenneth L. Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department who led the NCAA’s outside investigation of its handling of a recent athletics scandal at the University of Miami, has access to information acquired by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall ’82 (AB, ’85 JD) during a criminal investigation associated with the UNC case.

Nyang’oro’s longtime department administrator, Deborah Crowder ’75, is the only other person in the department who has been implicated in the irregularities. She is retired now and is said to be cooperating with Wainstein’s probe.

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