Aaron Beard
April 11, 2014

Review: UNC athlete literacy findings flawed

Research data from a University of North Carolina reading specialist doesn’t support claims of low athlete literacy levels at the school, according to reports released Friday from three outside experts.

The school hired professors from Georgia State, Minnesota and Virginia to review Mary Willingham’s findings. That came after a CNN story in January in which Willingham said her research of 183 football or men’s basketball players from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent reading below a third-grade level.

One of the three experts estimated the number reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels at closer to 7 percent in his report.

UNC had called Willingham’s findings flawed after its own internal review of her data, which she provided to Provost James W. Dean Jr., on Jan. 13. She stood by her findings as “100 percent correct” then and accused the school of trying to “protect our brand at all costs.”

In a statement Friday, Willingham said she needed time to review the reports before “a full response.”

“For now I will just say that I am disappointed that the university neglected to take even the most basic steps to ensure the integrity, impartiality and fairness of its supposedly ‘independent’ review of my data,” Willingham said. “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 … speaks volumes about the true motivations behind today’s press release.

“UNC personnel with the knowledge and expertise to verify my claims continue to remain and/or are being forced to remain silent.”

The three experts hired by the school were: Nathan R. Kuncel, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Minnesota; Lee Branum-Martin, an associate psychology professor at Georgia State; and Dennis Kramer, an assistant professor of higher education at Virginia.

Branum-Martin is also a co-investigator at Georgia State’s Center for the Study of Adult Literacy.

UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon said in an email Friday that the school paid them $5,000 each for their work. The school said each expert worked independently on a review of Willingham’s data, which it had said was based largely on the results of standardized scores in a 25-question multiple-choice Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA) vocabulary test.

According to the executive summary prepared by Dean’s office and approved by the outside experts, that SATA vocabulary test “should not be used to draw conclusions about student reading ability.”


Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>