Finding on high school students' reading skills is indication of new population taking college tests

Thursday, March 9, 2006

An education professor at the University of North Texas says a new study on reading released by the testing company ACT -- which concludes that too many American high school students are graduating without the reading skills they'll need to succeed in college and in workforce training programs -- is not surprising.

Dr. Leslie Patterson, professor of reading at UNT's College of Education, gives a simple explanation: More students are taking the test, and more of those students are the first in their families to attend college.

The ACT study shows that only about half -- 51 percent -- 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, the lowest level in more than a decade. 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. The percentage of students prepared for college-level reading peaked at 55 percent in 1999, and has declined since.

Patterson says a different population of high school students is now taking the ACT along with the Scholastic Assessment Test I, after being encouraged by their high school counselors to take both tests. Since schools use test scores as a "campus report card," Patterson says students receive more pressure to take these tests.

In addition to the increased number of students taking the ACT, "we've also seen a push to get more first-generation students to go to college, " Patterson says.

"Many of these students are from lower income brackets, and we have seen a correlation between high socioeconomic status and high test scores," she says.

ACT's findings suggest that many high school teachers are not incorporating higher-level reading materials -- the types of texts that students will encounter in college and in the workforce -- into their classes. It recommends that all states add higher-level reading skills into state education standards.

Patterson says Texas already focuses on higher-level reading skills through the state-mandated Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, which all students must pass to graduate from high school.

"The TAKS test has a reading comprehension portion to it. It's a fairly sophisticated test, compared to tests we have used in the past," she says.

Patterson says both educators and leaders in the business community have sought to improve reading education at the elementary school level. A similar effort should be made for older students, she says.

"For the past 10 years, there has been an increase in beginning reading instruction. We need to put more resources into reading at the middle and high school levels," she says.

Patterson also says that President George W. Bush's focus on science and math should not happen at the expense of literacy instruction.

"It's a false dichotomy that reading and writing achievement will support science and math achievement," she says.

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