College Football's Initial Illiteracy Problem

By Nicholas Jervey on January 11, 2014 at 7:30a
These guys made it through Ohio State just fine. Not everyone does.

One of the top stories in college athletics this week had nothing to do with how anyone played on the field or the court. Instead, it dealt with something larger: academic integrity.

The big business of college football and men's basketball is something academics are conflicted about. One one hand, they provide incredible exposure, publicity, and income for the university. On the other hand, those programs' scandals can undermine the university's reputation. Just ask the University of North Carolina, which for three years has been under siege for violations ranging from excessive benefits to tutors completing work for students to holding fake classes.

Or ask Ohio State, which has been living down Andy Katzenmoyer's summer classes for fifteen years now.

Sara Ganim, a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot best known for her Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Jerry Sandusky rape case, joined with CNN to promote an interactive story about the athletes that come into major football and basketball programs. To find out the patterns of which students are being admitted, she filed open records requests with forty of the top football and men's basketball schools in the country.

Ohio State and twenty other schools provided data in response. In many cases, athletes with the initial reading or writing ability of eighth graders were asked to complete college work; one of those schools was Ohio State.

That is not to say Ohio State develops students poorly – its APR scores suggest that Ohio State athletes develop well – but rather that the university is admitting freshmen who are unable to complete college work.

Ganim uses the standard of someone being college-literate as an SAT critical reading or writing score of 400 or ACT score of 16. When she wrote to Ohio State requesting the records, Ohio State wrote back saying that it did not use those measures.

Instead, the university uses a different measure of college-readiness, the Wide Range Achievement Test 4 (WRAT4), which instead scores by grade level. All incoming football players take this test, which measures reading comprehension and math skills. Though test result formats changed from 2009-2013 and equivalent grade levels are inconsistently applied, a 20th percentile or lower score for critical reading is roughly equivalent to an eighth grade reading level, which is also used as a cutoff for college illiteracy.

Freshman Football Players Testing at or Below 8th-Grade Level
Summer 2009 5/24
Summer 2010 4/9
Summer 2011 4/13
Winter/Spring 2012 3/7
Summer 2012 1/17
Spring 2013 0/5
Summer 2013 2/20
Total 19/93

Ohio State's data says that 93 players took the WRAT4 from 2009-2013. By my count, 19 graded at either an eighth grade or 20th percentile or lower level in critical reading; that’s one in five football players who were unsuited for college material entering Ohio State.

The trends do suggest an improvement over the past few years; from 2009-2011, 25% of football players tested below the threshold, while only 13% did in 2012-2013.

The disappointing thing about this is that Ohio State is slightly below compared to its peers. Other schools like Ohio State, such as Georgia, Texas, Iowa State, and Fresno State, were in the range of 12-16%. Several other Big Ten schools (Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin) were also contacted for this information, but most of them did not share it. Michigan and Michigan State denied the requests on privacy grounds, and Nebraska denied the request because it does not track entrance exam scores or have reading specialists. Only Wisconsin was willing to share records, likely because its track record is the best of any respondent, with only two athletes scoring below the threshold from 2007-2012.

This CNN report has caused quite a bit of consternation with the NCAA, which criticized the report as inaccurate. The NCAA says that football and men's basketball players consistently outperform their peers, citing overall SAT scores within its talking points:

  • In the group of more than 29,000 student-athletes who entered Division I institutions for the first time in 2012, only 16 were certified as eligible with test scores below 600 (or the ACT equivalent) – which is .05%. Of those, only 2 were in the sports of men’s basketball or football.
  • Only 68 were certified as eligible with scores between 600 and 700 (0.2%).  Of that group, 28 were men’s basketball or football student-athletes.
  • Test scores and GPAs are very highly correlated. This is why it is a very rare event to have a very low test score, but grades high enough to be certified as eligible.  It is only slightly more common to see very low grades paired with a high test score.

Anonymous university officials also have a number of explanations and rationalizations for the low scores. These include athletes not caring about scoring well on entrance exams, only wanting to become NCAA eligible; low scores being indicators of learning disabilities; and entrance exams being only one factor in deciding whether to accept a student-athlete.

With that said, there's a distinction between a learning disability and a lack of effort, and I can speak from personal experience. I was registered with the Office of Disability Services at Ohio State, and spent a fair amount of time around tutors and football players. On one occasion, I remember a tutor trying to coax a player through a writing assignment, who wanted nothing to do with it; the tutor had to start writing an outline for him. That's not academic fraud, but it does rest in the uncomfortable grey area where a player may be receiving more help than he ought to.

John Infante, a former compliance official who worked in several universities' compliance departments and at one time blogged at the NCAA's official site, believes the NCAA's criticism sidesteps the report, since the NCAA focuses on overall SAT scores and not critical reading scores, which was the focus of Ganim's report:

To address CNN’s report head on, the NCAA must release at least composite data about SAT critical reading and ACT reading scores, not composite scores. Alternatively, the NCAA could use the data it has to demonstrate that the central claim of the CNN report (i.e. < 400 SAT/16 ACT reading score = not college literate = should not have been admitted/received a degree) is incorrect. But this response and the data presented by the NCAA does nothing to refute the conclusions Ganim asks us to draw.

All in all, this is a lot of fancy talk to cover what a university's mission ought to be. The point of attending a university is to improve one's critical thinking skills, and the idea of an athletic scholarship is to reward students for their athletic prowess by giving them an opportunity to develop their minds. There may not be a solution for football programs admitting freshmen who can't handle college yet, but it's important to keep it in mind. Schools are obligated to help students learn, and if they don't in order to keep programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars running smoothly, they betray their charter.

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