CNN investigation: College athletes show 'staggering' gap in reading

acarlson@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 8, 2014 

Some student-athletes, while helping to generate millions of dollars for their school's athletic programs, aren't able to read beyond a grade-school level, according to a new CNN investigation.

"The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution," the news organization is reporting. CNN's work is built both anecdotally, from stories from people such as learning specialist Mary Willingham, and statistically.

CNN submitted requests for SAT and ACT entrance exam scores from 37 public universities (or, if those weren't available, the results of adult reading placement tests) and then consulted education experts to determine different "benchmarks." For example: "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. Many student-athletes scored in the 200s and 300s on the SAT critical reading test."

The story continues: "On the ACT, (CNN) found some students scoring in the single digits ... In most cases, the team average ACT reading score was in the high teens."

CNN spoke with one University of Oklahoma professor who found that 10 percent of revenue-sport student-athletes read below a fourth-grade level. That's more than 550 students across the country.

Willingham, while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, researched "the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012," according to CNN -- and found that more than 60 percent of them read at an eighth-grade reading level or below.

Sara Ganim's reporting is deeply contextual. Backing it up is an interactive database explaining where a lot of that reporting came from. That is, you can go here to better understand what the numbers from each of the public universities really mean.

What about the Georgia and Alabama universities? Auburn University said it is "still processing" CNN's request, which could take months. The University of Alabama said "it does not keep records, or track in any way, entrance exam scores or results of reading evaluations for athletes."

The University of Georgia is different: 7.5 percent of its basketball and football players admitted between 2007 and 2012, including 22 football players, scored below a "college literate" threshold. Their average SAT verbal score was 941, compared to the average freshman score of 1,243.

As UGA professor Billy Hawkins told CNN, "Students I mentor, many of them are doing well academically, but again it's under this whole umbrella of maintaining eligibility and I think image construction."

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