by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.".... ...John Locke.
Commentary of the Day - March 7, 2006: Ready or Not, Reading Matters.
Although not as well known as the SAT, the similar ACT exams are taken by more than a million high school seniors each year. The ACT exam consists of a 75-question English test that measures grammatical and rhetorical skills, a 60-question math test that assesses the skills acquired in high school mathematics through trigonometry, a 40-question reading test that measures comprehension, a 40-question science test that emphasizes reasoning and problem-solving skills, and an optional 30-minute writing test. Recently ACT released a report, Reading Between the Lines, that confirms what many of us who teach at the college or university level have known for a long time. Namely, that many of our entering students cannot read well enough to cope with the reading assignments they will encounter in their college classes.
The results from the 2005 ACT test showed that only 51% of the high school graduates who took the test met or exceeded the ACT benchmark for readiness to read college-level material. The individual ACT tests are scored on a 36-point scale, and the benchmark for reading readiness is set at 21 points. Students who meet or exceed the benchmark are significantly more likely to do well in their freshman courses than those who don't meet the benchmark. For example, students who meet or exceed the benchmark have a 63% chance of earning a B or better in freshman U.S. History courses compared to 36% for those students who don't meet the benchmark.
The ACT reading test is thorough enough so that specific reading problems can be identified. The major finding from the recent ACT test is that "performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are more likely to be ready for college and those who are less likely to be ready."
The ACT reading test includes textual passages with three levels of difficulty -- "uncomplicated", "more challenging", and "complex". Complex material is difficult to read because it includes subtle relationships among ideas or characters, and relatively sophisticated information that must be decoded from either data or literary devices. In addition, this level of material often includes elaborate structure, intricate use of language, and sophisticated vocabulary. Often, the author's purpose may be more implicit than explicit.
The ACT report includes a number of recommendations for helping students develop the ability to read complex texts. They include a call to strengthen state reading standards, which often do not address text complexity and which often are not specific about the progress that students should make in reading as they progress through high school. And, predictably, they suggest that more complex texts should be assigned in all high school classes, not just in English classes.
However, it is not as easy as it sounds to introduce more complex reading assignments across the high school curriculum. The high school curriculum has changed considerably in the past few decades. In most high schools there no longer is a clear delineation between college preparatory courses and other vocational or "general" courses. "Tracking" now is politically incorrect; and, there is a more or less tacit assumption that all high school students eventually will go on to some sort of post-secondary education, whether it be a community college or a more traditional higher education experience. The high school curriculum reflects this assumption; and, indeed, in some states the college preparatory curriculum is more or less mandated.
In reality, of course, high school students possess the same range of talents and interests that they always have. That means that a fair number of them either lack the talent or the interest to pursue a college degree. To cope with this reality while at the same time serving up courses that at least nominally are intended to prepare students for college, the textbook writers have been "dumbing down" their offerings for a number of years. Whether it's a history book or a physics book, it doesn't matter. There has been a conscious effort on the part of textbook writers to ensure that their texts are easy to read. Sentence structure is kept short and direct; and, efforts are made to keep the vocabulary needed to a bare minimum.
So long as these dumbed down texts continue to be adopted by state and local school boards there is little hope that the average college-bound student will be exposed to the more difficult reading assignments that would help him or her develop the kind of reading skills that will be needed in college. There is an exception, of course. Those high school students who can take advanced placement courses usually will be exposed to more challenging reading assignments. Unfortunately, not all high schools can offer a rich assortment of advanced placement classes, and some offer none at all.