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UNC will investigate claims over athletes' reading ability

By Sara Ganim, CNN
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 0245 GMT (1045 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • UNC will investigate claims regarding student-athletes
  • Mary Willingham was shocked by the number of UNC athletes who struggled to read
  • University releases own data

(CNN) -- The University of North Carolina has launched its own investigation into claims highlighted by CNN that too many of its student-athletes read poorly.

Chancellor Carol Folt posted an open letter to campus, saying: "I take these claims very seriously, but we have been unable to reconcile these claims with either our own facts or with those data currently being cited as the source for the claims. Moreover, the data presented in the media do not match up with those data gathered by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions."

The university also released some of its own data, which it claims shows that the allegations of academic problems highlighted in a CNN investigation by whistle-blower Mary Willingham are not true.

Folt's letter said: "Only two of the 321 student-athletes admitted in 2012 and 2013 fell below the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report as the threshold for reading levels for first-year students. And those two students are in good academic standing."

But a larger analysis of SAT and ACT entrance exam scores released to CNN show the situation is not so bright.

UNC data shows that, since 2004, the university admitted 34 players to play in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball who scored below a 400 on the SAT verbal test, or below a 16 on the ACT reading and English tests.

That's 10% of those athletes admitted under "special talents" to play football or basketball. Willingham reported 8% of student-athletes playing in revenue sports were reading below a third-grade level as part of a research project that was university approved.

However, Willingham's research included other factors, and used a smaller sample size.

On Thursday, CNN talked to a psychologist who administered the academic achievement test that Willingham used in her research, and that psychologist backed up Willingham's findings.

The psychologist, who asked not to be identified, said a spreadsheet with the results of the tests was given to UNC academic support center staff each year the testing was done.

"You have to do really badly on that test to get a low score," the psychologist also said, noting that some student-athletes scored even lower on later evaluations.

"I have the utmost confidence in Mary's integrity and she's trying to do the right thing, and always has," the psychologist said.

The SAT and ACT thresholds were used by CNN, after consulting several experts, to represent a reading level too low to understand college textbooks. That was the standard applied to several universities as part of CNN's national look at the reading levels of college athletes.

UNC officials talked with Willingham, a learning specialist, on Monday in what they said was a "cordial" meeting; Willingham described it as being "condescending."

But the university continues to dispute her findings. And her university approval to do the research was pulled Thursday by UNC, Willingham said, partly because she was aware of the identity of some of the athletes in her findings.

While UNC says it will do its own review of what Willingham found, it also disputes the claim that it admitted students who could not do work at UNC.

"There have been 34 students evaluated in detail at length and we believe were capable of succeeding here," said Steve Farmer, UNC's director of undergraduate admissions, referring to the 10% who scored below the threshold. "When we evaluate someone, we don't just rely on one score."

Farmer also pointed out that in 2013, no student-athletes were admitted with scores below the threshold, and in 2012, only two student-athletes in the revenue sports were admitted with scores that low.

CNN first requested comment from the university on Willingham's research back in September. The university originally said it was not aware of the research, then later said the university would not comment.

Only after the story was published has the university responded to CNN's requests for information.

Two years ago, UNC's own internal investigation uncovered an academic scandal in which several athletes were enrolled in classes where little or no work was required. The North Carolina attorney general recently indicted a former professor who allegedly accepted money for teaching those "no-show" classes.

Willingham, who has spoken publicly about that scandal and has received threats since talking to CNN, insists she worked with several student-athletes who would not have been able to read this article on the day they were admitted to college.

"We were going back to letters and sounds," Willingham told CNN, recounting stories of athletes, one who could not read multisyllabic words.

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