ACT Policy Alert

High Schoolers Not Challenged with Complex Reading Texts

Too many American high school students are graduating without the reading skills they'll need to succeed in college and in workforce training programs. That's the conclusion of a new report by ACT: "Reading Between the Lines." Policymakers and educators need to drive changes in high school reading standards, instruction, and assessment.

State standards are essentially silent on the matter of high school reading materials. They neither define the types of reading materials to which high school students in each specific grade should be exposed nor attempt to define what complex texts are.

Quote from ACT's chief executive offficer

ACT's findings suggest the ability to read complex texts is the clearest differentiator between those ready for college-level reading and those not. Only about half (51%) of the nearly 1.2 million 2005 high school graduates who took the ACT college admission and placement exam met the College Readiness Benchmark for reading on the exam. Students who reach or exceed the benchmark are likely ready to handle the reading requirements for typical credit-bearing first-year college social science courses. Reading is a skill important to college success in all academic areas. Students college-ready in reading are also significantly more likely to be college-ready in English, math, and science as well. Further, students who are ready for college-level reading are more likely to enroll, earn better grades, and stay in college.

Findings further reveal that reading skills often fail to develop as expected during the high school years. Results from ACT's EXPLORE® and PLAN® assessments indicate that a greater percentage of 8th- and 10th-grade students are on target to be ready for college-level reading than the percentage who are actually ready when they graduate from high school.

EXPLORE-, PLAN-, and ACT-tested Students Meeting Reading Benchmarks, 1998–2002 to 2001–2005
Chart showing percentages of students ready for college-level reading

Quote from ACT's chief executive officer

The full ACT report defines the type of materials that needs to be included in all high school courses in English, math, social studies, and science and provides a number of sample reading passages that illustrate the six essential features of complex texts. These six features, which can be abbreviated to "RSVP," are:

  • •  Relationships—Interactions among ideas or characters in the text are subtle, involved, or deeply embedded.
  • •  Richness—The text possesses a sizable amount of highly sophisticated information conveyed through data or literary devices.
  • •  Structure—The text is organized in ways that are elaborate and sometimes unconventional.
  • •  Style—The author's tone and use of language are often intricate.
  • •  Vocabulary—The author's choice of words is demanding and highly context-dependent.
  • •  Purpose—The author's intent in writing the text is implicit and sometimes ambiguous.

We can no longer afford to ignore reading instruction in high school. Something must be done to improve the reading proficiency of all students.

  • •  Strengthen reading instruction in all high school courses by incorporating complex reading materials into course content.
  • •  Revise state standards so that they both explicitly define reading expectations across the high school curriculum and incorporate increasingly complex texts into the English, mathematics, science, and social studies courses in grades 9 through 12.
  • •  Make targeted interventions to help students who have fallen behind in their reading skills.
  • •  Provide high school teachers with guidance and support to strengthen reading instruction and to incorporate the kinds of complex texts that are most likely to increase students' readiness for college-level reading.
  • •  Strengthen high school assessments so that they align with improved state standards and high school instruction across the curriculum.

Learn more . . .

Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading
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Full Report
Executive Summary
Policy Alert Message (this email message)


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