kitchen table math, the sequel: why is SAT reading so hard?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

why is SAT reading so hard?

I've just recently focused on SAT reading ---

It's hard.

Until two weeks ago, I took SAT reading for granted. I had high verbal scores in high school, and when I took a sample SAT test a couple of years ago, I missed two questions on the reading, only one of which was a real miss in the sense that my answer was clearly wrong. On the other miss, I disagreed with the CollegeBoard's answer.

So I hadn't thought about the verbal section until I started working with C. and a couple of other juniors on SAT prep.

Now I find that working through the verbal section is a wretched, miserable experience, and this is true in spite of the fact that I get the answers right.

Here's Hack the SAT:
You know how some people have a gift?


No one has a gift for Critical Reading.

Sure, plenty of people have a gift for reading.... [but] no one is particularly natural at critical reading, this seemingly endless stuff that jams the SAT full of tiny blue print and passages about the subtle revelations of medieval scientist nuns.


[E]ven those students who get high scores on Critical Reading find it more draining than the Math or Grammar sections. 


Working through a Critical Reading passage - especially a 'compare two passages' section (those are death) - I feel the brain equivalent of eye strain.

Why is that?

Hack the SAT: Strategies and Sneaky Shortcuts That Can Raise Your Score Hundreds of Points


Catherine Johnson said...

I was talking to a friend of mine about this, who said that LSAT reading is fantastically difficult. When she took the LSAT prep class, the teacher said that the LSAT eliminates many of the connective words in the passages on the test.

She has no idea whether that's true, but that's what they were told.

Does anyone know anything about that?

Does the SAT eliminate connective words?

Catherine Johnson said...

The SAT critical reading sections seem to place almost astronomical burdens on working memory; that's for sure.

Debbie Stier said...

I was discussing with Carolyn Joy this morning and she brought up the LSATs too -- and said the tricky part is picking the "Best" answer, not necessarily the "Right" answer.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that (a) it *IS* difficult, but also (b) the typical high school student does not have much experience with texts of this difficulty.

A steady diet of Dickens and H.P. Lovecraft (and many other older authors) in high school would go a long way towards addressing (b). As would having the students read Scientific American every month.

I'm sure that there are good reasons that we don't do this(*).

-Mark Roulo

(*) Well, maybe not "good." If my reading of teacher blogs is representative, a big problem is that the vast majority of students simply *WON'T* read the assigned texts. In this case, it probably doesn't matter too much what they are.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember the reading on the SAT test as being hard, but I took it so long ago that my memory may be failing. My son took the SAT test at the end of 6th grade, and found both the math and the reading tests fairly easy. Only the essay writing was hard, and that was mainly because he had never been taught how to write an essay.

Even the "critical reading" relies mainly on fairly straightforward passages with moderate vocabulary.

Crimson Wife said...

The College Board re-designed the SAT my senior year in high school so I took both the "old" version in '94 and the "newer" version in '95 (haven't taken the "newest" version with the writing exam). I dropped from being 1 question away from a perfect score on the old version to only a 700 on the newer version. The reason was the elimination of the straightforward antonyms section and an increase in the number of "critical reading" problems.

I was an extensive reader of quality literature. It helped me build a strong vocabulary but did little to assist me in determining which answer the test designer felt was correct.

I'm sure I'd score even worse today on because the latest version has eliminated the analogies section.

LexAequitas said...

As an instructor for TPR for several years, I had a breakthrough on the reading passages at one point after I made a realization. I was good at verbal sections before, generally able to complete them in just over 20 minutes with a 750+ score, but after the instructor training could complete them in 11 minutes with a perfect score.

The SAT is rigorously vetted, and constantly challenged. For every answer, there needs to be a detailed explanation that ETS can just mail off to every student who challenges the question. They come up with these before the test is ever given. This means there *has* to be something that can be pointed to in order to differentiate answers. On difficult questions, it will be minor, even picayune. And I don't mean picayune in the normal sense, I mean picayune in the sense that you'd better start thinking like a 13-year old with Asperger's syndrome. Don't accept generalizations that people use in speech and writing all the time just to make communication more efficient.

It's also worthwhile to note that the SAT does not typically select great literature. The writing is often clumsy and arcane, and this is part of the challenge. I suspect a better exercise if you want casual reading that mimics the SAT is to pick foreign translations.

You should be using almost no working memory on the SAT critical reading sections.

The LSAT does use harder passages, mostly because they're not laid out as logically and it's not nearly as predictable where you'll find the answer. I did miss a couple of questions on the LSAT (scored a 178), but none on the critical reading.

Catherine Johnson said...

LexAequitas - THANK YOU!

Your experience is interesting, because I was coming to that myself...

Can't remember if I posted this already, but last weekend I was trying to explain to the student I'm working with why my answer was right & his was wrong.

I was having trouble until I realized that there was one word in the text or answer (have forgotten which) that was consistent with my answer & inconsistent with his.

He saw it immediately and said, "Every word counts."

Catherine Johnson said...

The working memory demands are sky-high no matter how much background knowledge you have -- especially in the two-passage sections.

Also, if it really is the case that 'every word counts,' the working memory demands are just about unthinkable.

Catherine Johnson said...

a big problem is that the vast majority of students simply *WON'T* read the assigned texts

Doug Lemov has a terrific section about won't versus can't that I will TRY to get time to post.

I'm finding, with my students (in the composition classes - I'm not talking about SATs now), that the reading is probably too far beyond them.

I'm not sure what to do about it; I have an assigned text ----

I probably need to figure out how to do a 'pre-reading' or 'priming' (is that the term?

As for kids who can read but don't, that's where supervised homework comes in.