Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My response to the CNN student-athlete literacy report

UNC posted a response to the CNN report shortly after I posted this. Please note the addendum at the bottom of this post.

This week CNN published a report on illiteracy among college student-athletes and, more specifically, among UNC-Chapel Hill student-athletes.

Former UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC men's basketball and football players from 2004 to 2012. She reported that 60 percent read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels and 8-10 percent read at or below a third-grade level. That means 70 percent of revenue-sport Tar Heels were not ready to read college textbooks, which are written at a ninth-grade level according to CNN. The same report stated that 25 percent of revenue-sport Tar Heels would not have qualified to take classes at a community college.

CNN requested similar records from 37 public universities but received very little in return.

Arizona State, Rutgers and Michigan State denied CNN's request based on privacy laws. CNN has since appealed those decisions with no results to date. ASU was, however, happy to report that it employs one (!) learning specialist to work with all (!) of its student-athletes. Perhaps ASU felt good enough to report this after it discovered that Kentucky employs zero (!!) reading specialists for all of its student-athletes.

Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah, Michigan, Florida and Florida State all said they do not keep records of entrance exam scores or results of reading evaluations for athletes. Could we reasonably extrapolate that they don't keep records for any of their students? Athletes are students, after all.

Maryland never replied. South Carolina acknowledged receipt of the request but refused to respond.

Many other schools complied and responded with ACT and SAT data. In CNN's report, a college-literate test score was a reading ACT score at or above 16 or a reading SAT score at or above 400. Some of those schools used this standard to report a percentage of revenue-sport student-athletes who were not ready to read at the college level. Others reported their revenue-sport student-athlete ACT and SAT reading test averages next to either the averages of non-athlete admitted students or the averages of all admitted students. In short, these institutions reported that anywhere from 7 to 18 percent of their revenue-sport student-athletes read at the elementary level.

Most of the reporting schools came out better than Willingham's version of UNC. And given UNC's elite status among public universities, I can't imagine the unreported achievement gap between non-athletes and revenue-sport student-athletes would be a pretty thing to see.

As an educator and UNC alumnus, I am trying to digest this blizzard of information as objectively as possible. A few red flags, some in favor of UNC and some not, immediately come to mind.

I work for a North Carolina community college that sets higher standards for college literacy: at least an 18 on the ACT reading section or at least a 500 on the SAT reading section. Again, these are the standards for a community college in North Carolina. Admitted students who don't test as college literate have to take a separate placement test that forces them to enroll in one, two or three sequential, no-credit, developmental courses. I was surprised to find that CNN's standards for literacy at major research institutions were so much lower. It is unclear whether Willingham's reported 25 percent of Tar Heels that could not qualify for classes at a community college came from the 16/400 standards or the 18/500 standards. I suspect it came from the 18/500 since my employer and UNC both exist in North Carolina.

I cannot fathom that so many major research institutions do not keep records of their students' ACT and SAT test records. I know they require each applicant to provide scores before granting admission, so their statement leads me to believe either that they destroy the data upon admission or that they are lying to protect their student-athletes' privacy. But why didn't they just say they were protecting their students' privacy? They would have sounded more competent if they did.

I don't know the exact numbers, but I know a team of people is dedicated to meeting UNC student-athletes wherever they are and improving their academic abilities. As everyone knows, at least one of those people went rogue and broke the rules, and a professor and department chair did the same. We paid for it as an institution, and the athletes involved will suffer as a result for who knows how many years. Despite these missteps, UNC has maintained a commitment to giving all its student-athletes resources that other universities apparently do not.

CNN's statistical reporting was bad enough that I, an educator with a journalism and mathematics degree, do not understand the facts behind Willingham's numbers. Why does the report state that 25 percent of Tar Heels weren't ready for community college coursework while 70 percent of Tar Heels weren't ready to read on a college level? Further, CNN reported reading scores while omitting math scores, something annoyingly negligent but also unfortunately American.

I do not mean for these criticisms to undermine the larger purpose of CNN's report. The United States has perhaps the most advanced higher education system in the world paired with a disappointing secondary education system to feed it. Combine these with the big-money machine that charges $60 to go to a football game, and you wind up with some academically unprepared college student-athletes.

Some say that it simply isn't fair for an underachieving male student who excels at either of two sports to take the spot of the best student of either sex that UNC does not admit. Others would expand that to say it might not be fair for an underachieving student of either sex who excels at any sport to take the spot of the best unaccepted student. I'm not sure which statement is closer to the reality. Any college sports fan with a bachelor's degree has considered these matters of fairness. I know I have. It is a crisis of conscience and economics, and we have to have a conversation about it.

A few UNC fans say that the University is unfairly at the forefront of these conversations. They say that other universities seem to handle these issues better by staying out of the spotlight and keeping their players eligible. This stuff happens nearly everywhere else, you have heard your friends say. Why does the media always target us?

I think the media targets us because we are the nation's first public university and one that "with lux, libertas - light and liberty - as its founding principles, [charts] a bold course of leading change to improve society and to help solve the world's greatest problems."

Yes, that is the end of UNC's mission statement. It's just a mission statement, you might say, and you'd be right. Not all mission statements mean something, but ours does. That's why I pause every time I see UNC as the poster child for what is happening at universities across the country. We are leading this conversation. Our faculty, students and alumni are the ones writing critical letters to The Daily Tar Heel because we know that when we lead our university to a better day, others will follow.

Addendum: UNC also posted a response to the CNN report shortly after I posted mine. I agree with its first point, that Willingham's emphasis of a couple student-athletes' inability to read and write is an unfair representation of the majority of Tar Heel student-athletes. These alleged case examples are too statistically insignificant to merit Willingham's and CNN's condescending detail. If all but one Tar Heel can sound out "Wisconsin," then it is inappropriate to mention that one could not near the lead of the story.

Willingham has not met the University's request for the data that supported her statistical claims. She should. I certainly hope that she simply hasn't had time but will do so in the very near future.

UNC stated that "a subcommittee . . . established guidelines and procedures for the admission of student-athletes and other students with special talent." It would be informative for UNC to add an explanation of at least some of those guidelines and procedures on the page.


  1. "According to those academic experts, 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 article

    The CNN article in question clearly defines it's threshold for college-level literacy. The standard for community college course preparedness is not explicit but implied. Is this slight confusion the reason you are writing?
    I read this article as an interesting collection of words but could not find a single takeaway point or opinion? As an educator does it not worry/evoke some sort of emotion within you that students who would not qualify for community college are taking spots at the states, and one of the nation's, premier public universities?

  2. I find it confounding that some seek to send "mediocre at best" high school graduates to "elite institutions of higher learning". This is somewhat analogous to sending the "sinless to hell".