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UNC athlete literacy findings flawed

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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.

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The university hired Georgia State, Minnesota and Virginia professors to review Mary Willingham's findings. Willingham told CNN in January that her research of 183 football or basketball players from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level.

One expert estimated about 7 percent of athletes from Willingham's research read at fourth- to eighth-grade levels in his report. The school says the data included scores for 176 athletes, including baseball and volleyball players, and was based on testing to screen for learning disabilities or other problems.

The school said it had about 1,800 athletes attend the school during the 8-year period.

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 has stood by her findings and said in a statement Friday that 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 in February were: Nathan R. Kuncel, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Minnesota; Lee Branum-Martin, an associate psychology professor at Georgia State and a co-investigator at the school's Center for the Study of Adult Literacy; and Dennis Kramer, an assistant professor of higher education at Virginia.

Kramer, the program adviser for Virginia's intercollegiate athletics master's concentration, was the expert who estimated about 7 percent of athletes from Willingham's research read at fourth- to eighth-grade levels. He cautioned the data is only ''a snapshot.''

''My review looked at just the data I was provided and based all the claims I made from the data that was provided,'' Kramer said. ''Individuals like Mary Willingham, I respect them tremendously for the work they do to support student-athletes.''

UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon said in an email Friday that the school paid them $5,000 each for their work. The school said each 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.'' It also states that reading levels ''should not be reported as grade equivalents.''

In January, the school halted Willingham's research until she receives approval from a review board governing human research because it contained information that could identify the subjects.

Willingham's data included names of athletes, the year they entered the school, their sport. It also included SAT scores and GPA information added after the original screening, according to Friday's executive summary. The school said some baseball players were incorrectly listed as men's basketball players.

The review comes during a long-running period of tension in Chapel Hill over academics and athletics, particularly after the 2011 discovery of fraud in an academic department that included lecture classes with significant athlete enrollments that didn't meet and were instead treated as independent studies requiring only a research paper.

Willingham has said they were designed to keep athletes eligible. Former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein is conducting an investigation, the third commissioned by the school, into the causes of the fraud.

---

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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