updated 2/28/2006 4:12:03 PM ET 2006-02-28T21:12:03

One major factor separates high school graduates who are ready for college from those who aren’t, a new study shows: how well students handle complex reading.

Trouble is, most states don’t even have reading standards for high school grades, and not a single state defines the kind of complexity that high school reading should have.

“If you’re not asking for it, you’re not going to get it,” said Cynthia Schmeiser, senior vice president for research and development at ACT, the nonprofit company that did the study.

In a complex text, organization may be elaborate, messages may be implicit, interactions among ideas or characters may be subtle, and the vocabulary is demanding and intricate.

The ACT isolated reading complexity as a critical factor by analyzing the results of the 1.2 million high school seniors in 2005 who took the well known ACT college entrance test.

Based on that test, only 51 percent of students showed they were ready to handle the reading requirements of a typical first-year college course. The literacy of today’s high school graduates has become an enormous concern for colleges and employers.

What differentiates students who are ready for college from the rest, the research shows, is an ability to comprehend sophisticated texts that may have several layers of meaning.

Not affected by gender, race, income
That held true regardless of a student’s gender, race, ethnicity or family income. The ACT has spelled out the elements of complex tests in hopes states will start adopting them.

Such reading skills have big ramifications for performance in other subjects.

A total of 63 percent of students who met the ACT’s college readiness benchmark in reading did so in math, too. But only 16 percent of those who failed in reading were ready for college math. The same relationship to reading occurred with English and science.

More broadly, the study underscores the way the United States handles reading. It is largely treated as an elementary school subject, with diminishing focus in later grades. But with each alarming report on college readiness, adolescent literacy is gaining attention.

On a federal test considered a report card for the country, the reading performance of 17-year-olds has essentially been stagnant for 20 years. Another recent study found that more than half of students at four-year colleges lack the literacy to handle complex, real-life tasks.

‘An in-your-face statement’
Richard Ferguson, the CEO of ACT, said his new study has data to show that complex reading is what makes a difference — and that states don’t require it.

“It’s sort of an in-your-face statement about how far we have to go,” Ferguson said.

The ACT plans to solicit support from Congress and state education leaders. The company is calling for revised high school reading standards in core subjects, targeted help earlier in school for kids who struggle with reading, and more reading training for teachers.

Such a wholesale revision of what’s taught in high schools will be daunting.

High schools instructors are used to teaching subjects, not deeper reading skills embedded into their subjects, said Patricia Sullivan, director of state programs at the independent Center on Education Policy. Parents must also be convinced that spending high school time on reading is essential, and states must come up with money to revise courses.

Requiring rigorous reading will also take patience, because unless extra help gets to students before and during high school, more complexity could only mean lower test scores.

“With all the focus on reading, I think states are going to move in this direction,” Sullivan added. “The question is when, and where the leadership will come from.”

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