Friday, March 28, 2014

Research Methods Matter for Study of UNC Athletes' Reading Levels

Soon the independent review of Mary Willingham's findings will be released, and we will know the truth about UNC athletes' reading levels. The truth, I am sure, is that her findings grossly misrepresented the data. She claimed 70% of her sample, which consisted of mostly men's basketball and football players, read below a high school level. Based on my experience, I would not be surprised if the inverse is even too high a number. In other words, I would not be surprised if the actual number is less than 30%.

As Willingham already has, she will likely claim her findings are "100% correct" and that the independent review is another example of the university's conspiring to "squash" her research. Yet unless she can provide a legitimate explanation of her methodology, her assertions will remain empty. 

In academia, unlike journalism, methodology matters. Typically, before research is accepted as legitimate, it goes through a rigorous peer-review process in which other scholars closely scrutinize the methodology. Willingham has never submitted her research to such a process.

Willingham has, nonethless, revealed enough about her methodology for knowledgeable professionals and scholars to scrutinize it. In a January 17 article, she was quoted explaining her findings were based on a "combination of the SATA reading and writing (tests) and the SAT and ACT scores." As I countered in my essay "Truth and Literacy at UNC," combining such scores to determine grade equivalents has no basis in either the SATA manual or the research on educational assessment.

In a WUNC story two weeks later, Willingham offered another explanation of her methodology, claiming she "used a sliding scale to draw a connection between performance on the test and reading level." Again, I can find no such mention of a sliding scale for determining grade equivalents in the SATA manual, nor am I aware of any research validating such a method.

Frankly and unsarcastically, unless Willingham can provide a research-informed explanation of her methodology, her findings may best be explained as a reading specialist's failing to read instructions.

I have not denied my criticism of the admissions process for athletes prior to this school year. I have not denied the university admitted athletes who were too underprepared to succeed here. The scandal surrounding the paper classes was at least in part the consequence of admitting athletes who could not complete UNC-level academic work. Change needed to happen, and, as I explained in my essay "Truth and Literacy at UNC," this year it did. Nonetheless, I will not stand by passively while Willingham presents her distorted findings to make her case against college athletics. 

My own case has never been to defend the university. My case has been, and is still, that claiming 70% of men’s basketball and football players read below a high school level is unfair and insulting when the real number is much lower, probably less than 30%. My case is that such a misrepresentation of the facts perpetuates the “dumb jock” stereotype that research has shown already potentially threatens minority male athletes’ academic success. My case is that one can criticize his institution’s past admissions processes without resorting to inflated statistics and embellished anecdotes. My case is that truth matters, whether the truth helps or hinders the rest of one's case.

I look forward to learning the truth from the independent review.