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ACT Reading Test loaded against students March 4, 2001

“The reading component of the ACT test is loaded against students, and schools are doing little to nothing to change the situation” says Dr Bruce W Stewart, president of Speed Reading International and an international reading skills coach for more than 30 years. “Students are achieving lower scores, not because of lack of knowledge, but because the ACT presupposes a reading rate which is both higher than that of most students and certainly higher than what schools are teaching. As a result, many students simply cannot complete the test in the time allocated. This applies to both English-speaking students and even more so to foreign-language students.”

In a recent survey of ACT reading tests and 600 student reading rates, these were the findings and conclusions :
1. The ACT reading component comprises 4 sections of text and 40 multiple-choice questions, all of which has to be completed in 35 minutes. A total of almost 5000 words to be read – 3000 words of text and 2000 words in the questions.
2. The average high school student reads no faster than 250 words a minute, with an average reading rate of less than 200 words a minute.
3. Simple arithmetic thus shows that a student, reading at 200 words a minute, requires 15 minutes just to read the text, once only, leaving only 20 minutes to read, consider and answer 40 questions. Similarly, of the time available to take the test, half will be used in reading the questions.
4. Schools teach reading skills. Yet they do not appear to concern themselves with either how fast, or how efficiently, students are able to read. Few schools even measure reading speeds (I have yet to find one! - Author)
5. Few students have sufficient time to fully complete all 4 components of the ACT test.

“This is potentially disastrous for most students aiming at top colleges or scholarships” says Stewart. “It’s just not possible to answer 40 questions in 20 minutes when half the time is being spent just reading the questions. Few people, students, teachers or people in business, achieve full comprehension after a single read, and the ACT reading test appears to be based on assumptions that students read faster than 200 words a minute, that they achieve total comprehension in a single read and that they have total recall after a single read.”

“It is generally accepted amongst educators that full comprehension requires a multiple reading and that test-takers should spend, at the very least, half the time on taking the test – reading and answering the questions and reviewing the answers for accuracy. It may even be argued that the ratio should be 40 percent reading time and 60 percent of the time taking the test – extremely rare with current reading rates of students.”

“Other than loading the dice against students taking the reading test, this also impacts on the English, Math and Science components of the test” says Stewart. “Quite simply, you can’t answer the questions until you’ve read the information upon which the questions are based. And if you read too slowly, you don’t have enough time to read and answer the questions.”

John J is an 11th-grade student, doing the AP program and with a consistent 4.2 GPA. He scored 23/36 on the ACT test – English 22, Math 28, Reading 17 and Science 25. When questioned about these results being inconsistent with a 4.2 GPA, his response was that “at a reading rate of 200 words a minute, I only had time to do 3 (out of 4) parts of the Reading Test and I never finished ANY of the other test sections. I got low marks, not because of incorrect answers, but because I never had time to even supply answers.”

Sarah S developed her own solution to the problem of beating the test. “I go straight to the questions. I read two questions and then go to the text to find the answers, and so on. It’s a game of finding answers to questions with a time limit of about 1 minute per question.”

“While Sarah’s comments tend to inspire images of a human Google in a skirt, perhaps our education system should consider training students in the skills which the ACT test so obviously requires” says Stewart.

“In compiling success strategies for students taking the ACT reading test,” says Stewart, “we defined the following objectives :
1. The 3000 words of text need to be read at least twice in 14 minutes, with the remaining 21 minutes allocated to taking the test.
2. The 2000 words of questions need to be read at least twice in 8 minutes, with the remaining 13 minutes allocated to supplying and reviewing answers.
3. This would require a reading rate of 450 to 500 words a minute – fast enough to read everything at least twice and leaving a third of the total test time to answer the questions and review the answers.”

“With these objectives in mind, we started coaching students from various schools in NC, TN, FL, IL, NY and CA, with the objective of increasing reading speed, concentration and comprehension levels. The results were surprising. Reading speeds practically doubled (from 200 to 400 words a minute) at the end of only 2 hours of concentration and reading drills. Those students who undertook a 10-hour coaching course over two days demonstrated an average 5 times increase (from 200 to 1000 words a minute) in reading speed with a slight increase in comprehension and noticeable increases in concentration. Students reported improved ACT test scores with some students increasing ACT scores by as much as 25 percent.”

Students wanting to see how their reading skill measures up to the requirements of the ACT reading test, can test their reading speed and comprehension with a confidential online test at http://www.ExecuRead.com . Once you know your reading speed, the following table will give you an idea as to how you measure up to the requirements of the ACT reading test.

Explanation & Comment :
* A student reading 100 words a minute requires 60 minutes to read and re-read the text. But he/she only has 35 minutes for the whole test. So, at 100 words a minute, and even if this student reads everything only once, he/she cannot possibly complete the test.
** A student reading 200 words a minute will require 30 minutes to read and re-read the text. This only leaves 5 minutes to take the test, whereas his/her reading speed requires 20 minutes to read and answer the test questions. Clearly a high risk situation. The only possible solutions open to this student are to :
a) Read the text once only in 15 minutes and hope that sufficient comprehension is achieved by a single read to correctly answer 40 questions (read, answer & review) in 20 minutes (of which, half the time will be expended on just reading the questions), or
b) Spend whatever time is necessary to complete a section and not complete all 4 of the sections, or
c) Learn to read, concentrate and comprehend faster and better.
*** At a reading rate of 500 words a minute, this student is able to read and re-read the text in 12 minutes, leaving 23 minutes to take the test. And this speed, combined with the higher comprehension levels emanating from reading the text twice, will enable this student to spend appropriate time on each question and finish the test with time to spare.

Speed Reading International is a Charlotte NC-based reading-coaching organization, with offices in the USA, Canada, Britain and South Africa. Dr Stewart has more than 30 years experience in teaching advanced reading skills to students and adults. His clients include Credit Suisse, Visa, Capital One, Transamerica, Microsoft, University of NC, Kenan Flagler Business School (UNC), Darden Business School (UVA), Bank of America and thousands of school, college and university students.

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