kitchen table math, the sequel: SAT Reading Comprehension Questions

Thursday, February 24, 2011

SAT Reading Comprehension Questions

I thought I would start a new thread based on a comment by kcab in the School Boards thread about the SAT reading comprehension section. The question is how much general reading helps versus specific practice. Also, how much won't help at all. I have a lot of difficulty with some of these questions and I wouldn't know how to fix it. Here is an example:

The following line is from a SAT excerpt where the author really(!) dislikes the way science was being taught (in 1939).

(24) "As to the learning of scientific method, the whole thing is palpably a farce."


3. The word ‘palpably’ (line 24) most nearly means

A. empirically
B. obviously
C. tentatively
D. markedly
E. ridiculously


The answer is B.


How do you learn this by just reading? I've always seen papable used by authors to mean much more than "obvious". How would you learn this by studying definitions?


Palpable - Capable of being handled, touched, or felt; tangible

Obviously - unmistakably; clearly apparent

Markedly - in a clearly noticeable manner; conspicuously

In the answer section, they talk about substituting the different words in for palpably, but isn't that different than what they ask for? They wanted to know what it "most nearly means".


I used to teach a SSAT prep class and I would tell students that this sort of reading is unlike anything they've done before. I called it technical reading. Some people do well on these questions. Why?

38 comments:

Luke said...

I would totally have gotten that wrong because Palpably--as you point out--is so totally different from "obviously" there is no reason to equate the two unless you believe the author simply used the wrong word for the sentence and you think you know what the right word should have been. So, in reality, "empirically" is the closest thing to "palpably" ("derived from observation" resembles "tangible"). "Markedly" would have been my second choice, which I may have marked while over-thinking the question.

I am so glad such inane tests are no longer part of my life.

The word 'inane' most nearly means
A. Obviously silly
B. Obviously stupid
C. Obviously flawed
D. Obviously ridiculous
E. Obviously unmistakably mistaken

Of course, I was the guy who wrote to the SAT people about one of the math questions on my test. They told me there was "no ambiguity" in their question. I still disagree. But I was happy they sent me a reply when I wrote them. [smile]

~Luke

MagisterGreen said...

Palpable derives from palpo in Latin, meaning "to touch, throb, beat." Something palpable is therefore something touchable, which suggests concrete, real, directly available, etc... Ergo something palpable is something concretely available to the senses. Is it a synonym for "obviously"? Yes, it is. But it is commonly used as such in English and the Oxford Dictionary (small edition) lists definition #2 as "readily perceived." As far as SAT Reading questions go, this is nowhere as bad as some of the more egregious ones I've encountered.

As to the central question, though...being an advocate of as much reading as possible, of major authors who use good English (or whatever other language you want to learn), I can only say that I see specific practice as having the potential to fall short since it relies on you knowing enough definitions to get by. Of course broad reading is a lifelong habit and not something you can backfill in a review class setting.

SteveH said...

"empirically" is the closest thing to "palpably"

Good one! I guess I didn't think of that because I was trying to put myself into the shoes of the person writing the question.

I don't have a problem with many of the questions I see, but for some, you can tell that they are treading a very fine line of interpretation. There must be common rules or techniques they use to calibrate this.

SteveH said...

"..I see specific practice as having the potential to fall short ..."

I also see lots of reading as falling short on these exams. I've done a huge amount of reading, but I would never pick "obviously". The questions also require careful reading of short passages; not something I saw my son ever get in school.

kcab said...

To me, something is palpable if it is obvious to the sense of touch. So I would have picked B. None of the others have the same feel, though some could work in the sentence while giving a different meaning.

My remark about the Xanth novels was half-serious. I haven't reread them, so my memory may be false, but I recall them being full of puns. I could imagine that a reading diet heavy on puns, or poetry, might lead one to think more about the shades of meaning of words. Just knowing definitions wouldn't be the same, but I've thought that studying word roots should help one understand words more thoroughly. That said, although I have *wanted* DD to study word roots, she has not done so.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The use of "palpable" to mean "obvious" is quite standard. None of the other words offered comes close to the idiomatic usage of "palpably".

A lot of reading (with comprehension) is the best way to build a big vocabulary, but a short-term push is not going to do much.

Fantasy, particularly fantasy that uses high language, is excellent for vocabulary building.

MagisterGreen said...

"Fantasy, particularly fantasy that uses high language, is excellent for vocabulary building."

*cough* Tolkien, with some Homer and a bit of the Nordic Edda thrown in for good measure. *cough*

It always amazes me how well students, many of whom have never read anything even remotely comparable, respond to Milton, Dante, even Spenser and Chaucer. It's a struggle for some, but they almost all fall in love with some aspect of it.

SteveH said...

"None of the other words offered comes close to the idiomatic usage of 'palpably'."

Why?

Bostonian said...

There are "Kaplan SAT Classic" versions of books ("Tom Sawyer", "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Wuthering Heights", and many others) that are supposed to teach SAT vocabulary words.

According to Amazon reviewers, the text of the book is on the left page, and definitions of key SAT words are on the right.

I wonder if the Kaplan versions teach more vocabulary and are as enjoyable to read as the original ones.

Bostonian said...

I think the "Vocabulary Workshop" series by Jerome Shostak is good, having purchased two of the books. They are graded in order of difficulty.

kcab said...

@Bostonian,
But, who would rather read something called "Vocabulary Workshop" than a silly fantasy novel? Maybe all these SAT prep courses should just assign a lot of pulp fiction?

Milton, Dante, Chaucer, Homer - I would expect a student who had read work by these authors to do well. What bemuses me is that it appears one can score well in critical reading even in the absence of exposure to this level of literature.

Hainish said...

Steve, often SAT vocab questions test the secondary, connotative, or metaphorical meanings of words.

I don't have any issue with this question at all, as I've encountered palpably used in this way many times in my reading. When something is palpable, it is so real you can (figuratively) feel it.

Usually, you see the word describe fear, or excitement, or the tension in a room.

SteveH said...

I know what palpably means and I don't have a problem with "obviously", but why is that better than "markedly"? I would claim that markedly is much more tangible than obviously. Obvious implies something that everyone would know, but with palpably, the author is trying to make an extra point that is beyond obvious. It's an indicator of contempt, especially when it's used with the word farce. To use the word obviously would reduce the emphasis. The whole point of what the author is saying indicates that the problem is NOT obvious.

Lisa said...

Hmm, I got it right. I think a certain part of this comes down to being a good test taker; having a feel for the way the test writers word questions. I think a student who had read, and read and read would do well. Some Latin and Greek knowledge wouldn't hurt either. Of course, the only thing many read is their text messages so....

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve, often SAT vocab questions test the secondary, connotative, or metaphorical meanings of words.

I think this is exactly wrong!

The single best piece of advice anyone ever gave me about SAT reading appeared in the Comments thread...let me see if I can find it.

Essentially, you have to answer the reading questions the way you answer math questions: the answer has to be RIGHT "denotatively" (or denotatively speaking - inside joke - !)

If the connotation is right but the denotation is even slightly off, go with the denotation.

I sometimes think of it as answering the way an autistic person would answer.

(I reliably score 800s on the College Board reading & writing sections in the Blue Book.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Here it is: LexAequitas on SAT Critical Reading

Catherine Johnson said...

I question whether SAT critical reading can be coached or taught at all.

Our high school principal recently sent out a long letter claiming that SAT scores are a measure of "test-taking strategies," so I skimmed the various meta-analyses of studies of SAT coaching.

The average point gain on critical reading is 8 points.

These are fantastically difficult tests (and I say that as a person who can hit 800 pretty easily).

I recently posted a query on the precision teaching list about SAT coaching & heard back from two teachers expert in precision teaching who are working on this -- but that's all I know at the moment.

I'm very interested in whether it would be possible to create a precision teaching curriculum to coach the SAT.

As to what parents should do...there's a terrific book on kids who scored 800s on the SAT (I think the author is Fischgrund - there should be posts on ktm).

He found that 800 scorers did 'read a lot"...but he also found that they did a huge amount of assigned reading.

You need a school that gives students lots of assigned reading in all subjects AND GOES OVER IT IN CLASS, ON PAPERS, IN QUIZZES, ETC.

Simple "reading a lot" is ***not*** a good technique for improving students' reading comprehension. (There's actually a fair amount of research on this, which is covered in McGuinness' books.)

I think I've also posted Jeanne Chall's study looking at the decline in SAT scores; that should also be findable here on ktm.

As I recall, she connected a decline in SAT verbal scores to a decline in difficulty of school reading (lower vocabulary, etc).

Which brings me back to what a parent can do.

My 'high-performing' high school assigns very little reading in English literature classes --- though I think the history classes probably assign a fair amount. (Not sure.)

C's Jesuit high school assigns beaucoup reading AND the teachers go over it in class, give tests, and assign papers.

C is doing quite well on practice SAT tests (on the critical reading & writing sections - not on math).

He's scoring in the low 700s. I think it's possible that by the time he takes the test he'll be able to hit a 750 or thereabouts.

If he does, it will be because we're focusing heavily on LexAequitas' advice. When C. missed a question, I go over the precise logic of the question.

There are always two answers that make sense, and the correct answer is the most concrete of the two.

kcab said...

For me, the question isn't what can one do to raise an SAT critical reading score, I'm looking back and wondering what it was that led to a high score achieved without apparent effort. I found that section of the SAT easy myself, and it sounds as though you did as well, but I don't know why it was easy. It's not due to the quality of her schooling or extracurricular reading.

In my daughter's case it's not clear what point there would be to assigning her a great deal of reading - or rather - the rigorous reading should be assigned for its own worth, without the thought that anything will happen to SAT scores thereby.

SteveH said...

Hey Catherine, can I send my son to you?


"If he does, it will be because we're focusing heavily on LexAequitas' advice. When C. missed a question, I go over the precise logic of the question."

What would be the precise logic of the question above?


"There are always two answers that make sense, and the correct answer is the most concrete of the two."


I actually like Luke's answer best, but why would obviously be more concrete than markedly?

The people who make the tests go out of their way to have two close answers. They must have some specific rules that govern this selection. I can't imagine that being able to make this selection well is just a result of lots of reading. I would say that lots of reading would bring you to know what the two choices would be, but selecting the correct one takes some other knowledge or skill.

lgm said...

In my mind, markedly just isn't it b/c something that is marked is standing out for a particular attribute. Something that is obvious or palpable is so because of more than one attribute that catches one's attention. So, while the answers are close, they are far enough away to distinguish a difference.

lgm said...

An additional clue is in the sentence...'the WHOLE thing..'

SteveH said...

I dug up the link, Catherine, and here it is:


"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."

But the thread didn't go on to explain what these "picayune" differences are or how to think like a 13-year old with Asperger's syndrome.

In this example, perhaps it's a matter of selecting the simplest (obvious?) answer that is not incorrect without over-thinking. My first thought when I read the problem was to consider markedly as being more tangible than obviously. I see obviously as visual or mental and markedly as physical. Obvious also has a wrong sense when you are making an arugument. If your point is obvious, why are you saying it?

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm starting to mark examples of "picayune" differences in our Blue Book.

A lot of times it's either 'severe' logic (what I call severe logic, which I realize is meaningless to anyone **but** me) or extreme accuracy...

Catherine Johnson said...

My friend Debbie Stier, who's prepping herself for the SAT, says that vocabulary study is ESSENTIAL, and I agree.

She also finds that she has to write each word down and then write down a definition (I think----)

Just looking at the word and then flipping over a flash card isn't enough.

Catherine Johnson said...

If I had a younger child, I'd get him started on Vocabulary Workshop at once.

I think those books are fantastic.

They're reasonably priced, and they teach each word via:

* dictionary definition
* antonym
* synonym
* sentence completion
* in a long passage

Every once in a while I'm not crazy about the way VW defines a particular term, but the books are so good that doesn't keep me from recommending them.

Vocabulary is critical not just to the vocabulary section but to the reading passages as well.

Anonymous said...

Looking at all the alternatives, it seems to me that "markedly" is the one that I would have the hardest time coming up with a good definition for; it is the hardest one to distinguish from the others; it seems slightly vaguer than the others. This is just one persons feel for things. On the other hand, if I had to grasp for a folk-etymological definition I would say that a "marked" difference is one that has a marker, a specific detail that you can point to as making a difference; but this might not be "obvious" or "palpable". In fact, a palpable difference might not be a marked difference at all. It might be large-scale and general, and yet not have a "marker" or detail that you could point to and say, "they are different because of that one thing."

SteveH said...

"A lot of times it's either 'severe' logic (what I call severe logic, which I realize is meaningless to anyone **but** me) or extreme accuracy"

I would say that markedly fits 'severe' logic.


It can't be a matter of studying definitions:

Obviously - unmistakably; clearly apparent

Markedly - in a clearly noticeable manner; conspicuously


Clearly apparent = in a clearly noticeable manner.


"As to the learning of scientific method, the whole thing is obviously a farce."

I just don't buy it. It's not the same as palpably. There is no edge. The statement completely wimps out.

kcab said...

Actually, I think "manifestly" would have been a much better word than any of the choices offered.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Catherine, can I send my son to you?

Definitely!

I'm looking for 'guinea pigs'!

Now I have to figure out whether 'obviously' is the more concrete of the two answers...

Catherine Johnson said...

OK, I think I've got it.

Anonymous wrote:

if I had to grasp for a folk-etymological definition I would say that a "marked" difference is one that has a marker, a specific detail that you can point to as making a difference; but this might not be "obvious" or "palpable". In fact, a palpable difference might not be a marked difference at all.

I agree with this, but I came up with a different concrete-versus-more-general difference between "markedly" and "obviously."

To me, the term "markedly" includes a connotation (here I am talking about connotations!) of comparison or degree. One thing is 'markedly' more or less something than another.

The sentence "As to the learning of scientific method, the whole thing is palpably a farce" does not imply any form of comparison or degree at all; it is a flat-out condemnation.

"Obviously" also contains no degrees; it is the 'maximum.'

"Palpably" and "obviously" are both absolutes -- or statements of an absolute quality --- while "markedly" is a statement of degree.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, for me -- is this true of everyone else here? -- the words "markedly" and "obviously" are enormously different. They aren't synonyms.

I think one element of expertise is seeing (or hearing) very fine distinctions/differences where non-experts see sameness or similarity.

When I was writing science articles for the National Alliance for Autism Research, I would sometimes come up with what to me was a perfect explanatory metaphor or analogy -- but to the scientist would be a shocking conflation to two completely different things.

I'm still having this problem with counting problems on the SAT.

I studied Dolciani's chapter on permutations last summer but didn't learn any of the material to automaticity, and now I find that I have **no** idea whether a question is a permutation question or a combination question.

They sound the same to me.

Catherine Johnson said...

Obvious implies something that everyone would know, but with palpably, the author is trying to make an extra point that is beyond obvious. It's an indicator of contempt, especially when it's used with the word farce. To use the word obviously would reduce the emphasis.

True.

But that's why he used the word palpably!

linsee said...

I'd think the best replacement for "palpably" would be "self-evidently" (though "manifestly" would work too). What do these adverbs have in common in modifying the predicate in "This method is a farce"? Putting "obviously" in that slot seems to fit comfortably in that cloud of meaning without changing it much.

"Markedly," though, does not fit. Its cloud is more like "significantly," "notably," and ... well, no other occurs to me at the moment, but in thinking about the possibilities I note that "markedly" seems to be more comfortable with adjectives -- "markedly farcical" rather than "is markedly a farce."

Would I have thought that way when I took the SAT (long, long ago)? Probably not, anyway not consciously, but I thought the SAT was ridiculously easy.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's not ridiculously easy any more.

Not by a long shot.

That's one issue with making comparisons between SAT scores over the years.

The math test is **much** harder, and so is the reading test as far as I'm concerned.

Without all the self-teaching of math I've been doing since starting to write ktm, I'd score one hundred points lower than I am now on practice tests.

The reading test places enormous demands on working memory.

Huge.

The test didn't have the compare-two-passages section when I took it, and it **did** have analogies.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

While the SAT has changed over the years, there is no evidence that it is markedly harder. Many contend that over the past 40 years (the time since I took the SAT), the math portion has gotten easier. I wouldn't know, even if I retook the test, since my skills have changed a lot since then (my combinatorics is stronger, but my geometry is weaker, I think).

The only recent anecdotal data point I have is that my son in 6th grade scored over 700 on the critical reading without having done any real vocabulary study (just 5th and 6th grade vocabulary in class). Thus I do not believe that vocabulary study is essential to doing well. He does read a lot, and we use college-level vocabulary routinely in our conversation, so it seems that the normal mechanisms for learning language suffice for learning SAT vocabulary (for some kids in the right environment).

Anonymous said...

I certainly haven't made any study of the SAT, but I think I remember that the analogies were removed because so many kids did so poorly on them. Is that true? If so, perhaps the test is easier, at least in that respect. I frankly don't remember any of the analogies from my SAT or my GRE (I was almost perfect on verbal on both, with no prep), but doing well on the Miller Analogies required a LOT of general knowledge across the disciplines, at least when I took the test in the late 70s. I remember one with four names I regognized as classical musicians; one was a cellist, one a violinist and one a conductor, but I wasn't sure about the fourth, so I had to guess about the correct analogy. In a school climate where content knowledge is not demanded, the MA could be a tough nut today.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I just check the website for my grad school, which required the Miller Analogies for both MS and PhD programs (higher minimum score required for the latter), and the school has dropped the MA entirely. The doctoral program requires the GRE (no cut score identified) and the MS program requires the GRE only for those applying for scholarships. Cynic that I am, I imagine that the MA scores of applicants was involved in the change. Ditto for the removal of the analogies on the SAT (don't know if the GRE still has).

Crimson Wife said...

I read somewhere that the analogies were taken off because certain demographic groups did especially poorly on them. The test was redesigned in a way such that the overall average was similar but it was supposedly less biased.

The SAT math test was redesigned between my jr. and sr. years and I found the latter to be quite a bit easier.