kitchen table math, the sequel: Steve's SAT reading question - 2nd pass

Friday, February 25, 2011

Steve's SAT reading question - 2nd pass

(fyi: I deleted the first post I wrote on this subject)

I mentioned in the Comments thread that I reliably miss 0 to 1 items on SAT I reading and writing tests. I don't find the tests easy -- I find them taxing -- but I finish the sections five minutes early and never miss more than 1 item.

I don't know why that is, though.

So a couple of minutes ago I tried to analyze why I chose the correct answer to the question Steve posted:
The following line is from an 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.
1st step: I rapidly eliminate and cross out the three obviously wrong answers.

For me, answers a., c., and e. are obviously wrong:

a. empirically
c. tentatively
e. ridiculously

Why are these 3 answers obviously wrong?

a. Empirically is wrong because the author has said nothing explicit about running an experiment or observing actual students who were learning (or attempting to learn) the scientific method. Thus I conclude that the author is voicing an opinion, not describing an empirical observation or experimental result.

This is an example of former SAT tutor LexAequita's advice that to do well on the SAT you'd better start thinking like a 13-year old with Asperger syndrome.

Students should read SAT reading and writing questions the same way they're told to read SAT math diagrams: add nothing to the text that isn't explicitly stated. Easier said than done since reading is all about making inferences, but that's a conundrum for another day.

c. Tentatively is wrong because it's inconsistent with the tone of the passage, which is emphatic, not tentative. Tentative is the opposite of emphatic, so it's wrong.

e. Ridiculously is redundant. The writer says that "the learning of the scientific method is a farce," and farce means ridiculous. So you don't need to add the word ridiculously.

Second step: I choose the "more right" of the two answers that remain.

As far as I can tell, SAT reading and writing questions always come down to two arguably correct answers. Your job is to figure out which answer is more correct and choose that one.

In this case, the two arguably correct answers I'm left with are:

b. obviously
d. markedly

As I tried to reconstruct why the word obviously leapt out as me as the correct answer, it struck me that I may have been influenced by the conventions of idiomatic usage and good writing. If you substitute the word obviously for palpably, the sentence works; if you substitute the word markedly, the sentence doesn't work.

...the whole thing is obviously a farce

...the whole thing is markedly a farce

See?

Maybe markedly a farce sounded wrong to me because it's bad writing.

I'm going to start keeping an eye out for how often the right answer is also the better written answer.

30 comments:

LynnG said...

I'm really glad you posted this explanation, Catherine. I'm on the fence with the entire procedure for prepping for the SAT with my second child.

I clearly left far too much up to my first child -- relying on the school's program to get him through. That was a mistake -- not because the school's program was bad (it wasn't), but because I did not realize until far too late how reluctant he was to face the reality that it is possible to think your way through the reading sections.

My son is a voracious reader and felt that he was fine on his own with the SAT section. He did well, but could have done better.

I love your explanation. Reading your post is encouraging in that it is possible to improve your reading ability through systematic effort.

SteveH said...

"Why are these 3 answers obviously wrong?"

I have no problem with that, but I still like Luke's reasoning for empirically. I think that this part is directly related to reading and development of vocabulary. Many kids will only have a vague idea of what the word means. I like to take the Word Power test in the back of Readers' Digest because it tests your understanding of word definitions, rather than some sort of vague meaning derived from reading. I think that's the weakness of just using reading to develop your vocabulary. Word usage can often slide (?) away from a formal definition. Also, there are the other meanings to words that you might never see in books. Knowing roots might help, but not always.


"Second step: I choose the "more right" of the two answers that remain."

This seems to be where test practice skill will pay off.


"If you substitute the word obviously for palpably, the sentence works; if you substitute the word markedly, the sentence doesn't work."


But they didn't ask you which word would make the sentence work. They asked you what the word most nearly means. I can tell that obviously seems to flow or fit (in what sense?) better when I compare the two sentences side by side, but I was asked what it means. My thought process wasn't about writing, but meaning. Palpably has a tangible or tactile sense to it. It is used when authors want to emphasize an almost physical reaction to something. It's a strong word. Markedly fits that better (meaning-wise) than obviously. Obviously is a weak word that loses whatever emphasis or gut-level feeling the author was trying to make.


"I'm going to start keeping an eye out for how often the right answer is also the better written answer."

You obviously (not palpably) know something because you consistently get these questions correct. I made a comment in the other thread about how it might be more of a writing issue rather than a meaning issue.

However, I'm still not sure why markedly would be "bad writing". Is it smoothness? Palpably is not smooth. I think palpably is used specifically to show how the topic makes the author feel. Obviously would imply that he is making a simple statement with no real emphasis. No emphasis is needed because it is obvious to everyone. It is not palpable to everyone, however. That is what the author is trying to get across.

Catherine, you seem to "get" something that I'm missing. Consistently.

SteveH said...

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


I just saw this on the other thread. This sounds like an after-the-fact justification.

I don't think of palpably as some sort of absolute. I see it as a way for an author to show how something makes him/her feel on a gut level. It is not some sort of intellectual argument.

I also don't see markedly as a statement of degree. I see it as a way to show a strength of emphasis. Obviously doesn't do that. If something is obvious to all, then it loses emphasis.


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

The whole point of his argument is that it is apparently NOT obvious. Of course palpably doesn't work either because it describes how it makes him feel. That shouldn't convince anyone.

Someone could argue that:

"As to gay marriage, the whole thing is palpably a farce."

That's not the same as obviously. It's not obvious unless it's generally agreed that it is obvious. You can't make an argument and then claim that it is obvious.

SteveH said...

It seems to me that the best approach to this problem is to do lots and lots of practice tests and analyze exactly why you got each problem wrong. You must develop a sense of their thought process.

I can see this happening with the math problems too. Even though there would be only one mathematically correct answer, you would develop a feel for how they pose the problems and what traps they put in. A common trap is the one where there are fewer equations than unknowns, but some of the unknowns drop out.

SteveH said...

I can see test prep making a huge difference, especially if you are not talking about just a short course. It won't make up for lack of reading or for a poor vocabulary, but once you get past that (down to obviously versus markedly), it could be huge. At that SAT level, small changes in scores can be very meaningful.

kcab said...

Well, sounds as though the studies indicate that, empirically, test prep doesn't make a difference. (Using methods of test prep that were used in the studies...)

I have to say, I don't think empirically fits at all in that particular SAT question, since it would imply that the writer has data to support his claim. The sentence sounds like an opinion, not a statement of fact.

"Palpably" indicates something that is evident to the human senses, while "markedly" both indicates a comparison and indicates that there is a marker of some kind. There is no requirement that the thing being marked is evident to the human senses, therefore "markedly" cannot be correct. (As well as for the other reasons noted by Catherine & others.)

I thought this was interesting in the LexAquitas comment:
"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.”

That aligns interestingly with my and my DD's reading habits.

kcab said...

I should probably clarify that I don't think a gain of 8 points is very impressive. Given that one is usually taking the SATs because one wants to get into college, seems to me that the time and money spent on test prep might be more profitably spent elsewhere if the expected gain is so small.

Kevin said...

Here's my explanation as to why obviously is correct. Palpable, the adjective that palpably is the adverb of, means able to be touched or noticed. I then thought that since it is an opinion, that he has no data to prove his statement correct, so I looked at tentatively, obviously, and markedly, eliminating ridiculously because it does not match the meaning of the word although palpably has gained that connotation. Palpably is not tentatively since it is noticed directly and an observation is not tentative, although an opinion is. Therefore, only markedly and obviously are possible, but markedly noticeable is not semantically valid because markedly goes with concrete adjectives like faster, larger or the like. Noticeable is abstract, so I chose obviously. A better distracter for d would be noticeably.

SteveH said...

Here is their explanation:

"Go back to the text and find a word of your own to replace ‘palpably’ before you even look at the choices. We read, "As to the learning of scientific method, the whole thing is palpably a farce." Here, I could substitute ‘obviously’ or ‘clearly’. As it happens, one of the words is there in the choices. (B). If it had not been there, there would have been something sufficiently similar to make a choice."

I still disagree. If the original sentence used obviously, I would never replace it with palpably. The only argument I can find is that obvious is the best answer for a SAT test.

Does this sort of fill in the blank technique work in all cases?

In some of the word definition tests I've taken (not SAT), they attempt to mislead you toward a common (but wrong) interpretation of the word. They answer will emphasize a secondary definition or something associated with the root.

My view is still that lots of reading and vocabulary work can get you down to two choices, but to select between the two, you have to have a lot of experience grokking the test

SteveH said...

In this month's (march) Reader's Digest Word Power test, the first definition is:

1. grok (v.)
A. To understand profoundly
B. Stun, as with a gun
C. Shed, as in the coat of an animal

This is an easy one, but some of the questions do a good job leading you to a definition that you might have from just reading and not from studying vocabulary or roots. Actually, some of them try to get you to see incorrect roots. If they had obviously and markedly as choices for palpably, I'll bet the answer wouldn't be obviously.

LynnG said...

"Advancing Our Students' Language and Literacy" in the current issue of American Educator is worth a careful read. http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter1011/Adams.pdf

SteveH said...

Are there any common standards for rating textbooks and regular books for a particular level (vocabulary, concepts, etc.)? If so, can those ratings be easily found? I'm talking about high school and above levels.

LynnG said...

This is the 1996 paper that is cited in the above article:

http://www.soc.cornell.edu/hayes-lexical-analysis/schoolbooks/Papers/HayesWolferAndWolf1996.pdf

The authors took readers from the archives of 18 college and university libraries from 1919 through 1991. The pulled stratified samples of 10 to 30 pages from each, all at least 1,000 words long.

Those samples were then analyzed for lexical difficulty. The LEX score is based on a word choice algorithm that measures the degree to which word choice is skewed toward or away from the use of the most common words. A newspaper is at zero, a preschool book is extremely negative and a scientific paper is extremely positive. Positive scores indicate difficult text, negative scores indicate simple text.

The results are stunning. They show a very strong correlation between text book simplification after 3rd grade and a cumulative deficit in the breadth and depth of student knowledge.

Michael Weiss said...

I guess I am late to the discussion, and I see that Catherine has already more or less said the same thing, but here is my 2 cents worth:

Markedly is wrong because, notwithstanding the fact that its dictionary definition is virtually identical to that of obviously, the two words are used in quite different ways. Markedly is only used in comparisons: Today is markedly warmer, my son is markedly taller than my daughter, this question is markedly harder than the other. You would never say: My son is markedly tall or Today is markedly warm. So markedly is not equivalent to palpably in the given sentence.

Not to put too fine a point on it: Of the two choices, "obviously" is markedly a better fit than "markedly", and so it is obviously the right choice. :)

Anonymous said...

SteveH: "Are there any common standards for rating textbooks and regular books for a particular level (vocabulary, concepts, etc.)? If so, can those ratings be easily found? I'm talking about high school and above levels."

Yes, there are. But they aren't very good.

Flesch-Kincaid, for example, measures vocabulary difficulty by counting syllables. This is better than nothing, but syllable length doesn't correspond very well to difficulty of vocabulary. This is, unfortunately, the metric built in to things like MS Word.

Dr. Hayes' LEX metric is the best I have found, but it is difficult to find LEX scores for texts.

The folks at lexile.com have a scoring system of their own that is fairly widely used (but I don't know how many textbooks are in their database). It *mostly* scores average sentence length, but also takes into account some sort of vocabulary difficulty.

Even Dr. Hayes' LEX score has some problems, though (wow, it isn't perfect!). The big problem that it has is that it scores word difficulty relative to some sort of absolute word frequency. But, once you've read a bunch of texts in one area (say, baseball) then the fact that some of the words are relatively uncommon is unimportant. For *YOU*, the words are easy.

What we really want is a distance measure of a given text relative to other texts, and also relative to a pool of texts that a given person has read. That would provide a better measure of how difficult a new text would be for a given person.

To the best of my knowledge, such a metric does not exist (except in my head ... with some luck I'll code it up in the next 3-4 years ... but it really depends on my free time ... which does not look good).

A small table and chart of LEX scores (including Resnick and Halliday's physics text) can be found here:

http://www.mistybeach.com/mbra/topics/reading/reading.html

But this is far from as comprehensive as you would like.

-Mark Roulo

Michael Weiss said...

I've been peeking into some archival secondary math textbooks (from the late 19th and early 20th century) and have been struck by how different the implied readers of those books seem to be from those of contemporary textbooks. I would love to be able to quantify those differences. It would be amazing if one could submit a document and have it computer-scored for reading difficulty.

TerriW said...

I've been peeking into some archival secondary math textbooks (from the late 19th and early 20th century) and have been struck by how different the implied readers of those books seem to be from those of contemporary textbooks.

I'm currently reading Jane Fielding's _Master Reynard: The History of a Fox_ to my kids as our night-time book, it's an elementary read-aloud from about 100 years ago ... and on many pages, there's at least one word I've never even *heard* before, let alone know the definition off the top of my head.

(Admittedly, it's generally the nature-related stuff like "furze" and "sett," but still ... )

And the sentences!

"The glimpse I got of the face of the precipice showed that the ivy had lost all its leaves, the bared stems standing out plainly against the black fissures that seamed the great wall of rock besprinkled with sparks which in their fall resembled shooting stars."

Or this gem:

"Of course, had the matter of digging by day, in which lay the sting of the underground annoyance, been brought to an issue, we foxes had not a shadow of right on our side; because we knew that the earth belonged to the badger by right of excavation, and that we were there on sufferance only as long as he found us tolerant and agreeable."

None of our modern day early elementary readers have that kind of complexity. And the ones I quote above were not ferreted out for their uniqueness -- I just opened to random pages -- the whole book is like that.

My 4 year old was a little wiggly the first few nights, but now he's used to it and is able to follow the story.

Catherine Johnson said...

My son is a voracious reader and felt that he was fine on his own with the SAT section.

They all think this!

C. has been basically counting on scoring at least a 750 .... and guess what?

When he finished today's test, he scored a 700 even.

Adolescents just aren't good judges of their abilities one way or the other, as far as I can tell.

C. also underestimates his ability to earn a good score on math. "I'm terrible at math" etc.; he thinks his strategy should be to get 750s on Reading & Writing & 650 on math, bringing him to the 2100 total we think he needs to get into NYU.

Very hard to convince him that:

a) he can't count on getting 750s on **both** writing & reading
and
b) he should shoot for a 700 on math

At this point, I don't have a lot of confidence he can get to a 700 on math, but he should be aiming for it - and should be serious about studying.

Catherine Johnson said...

development of vocabulary

Absolutely.

Today C. couldn't answer a question because he didn't know the word "abashed."

"Abashed" wasn't in the answer; it was in the reading passage. But because he didn't completely understand the reading passage, he couldn't answer the question.

Catherine Johnson said...

Catherine, you seem to "get" something that I'm missing. Consistently.

It's true - and I'm trying to figure out what it is.

On Test 2, I missed 2 items, and one of those was a bubbling error. (I have a real issue with accurate bubbling, it seems. VERY frustrating.)

Also, when I find out the correct answer, I agree with the College Board; their answer makes more sense to me.

I'm trying to analyze why it is the right answers seem right ---- if I **do** figure it out, I'll write about it!

Catherine Johnson said...

However, I'm still not sure why markedly would be "bad writing". Is it smoothness? Palpably is not smooth.

It's just a question of idiomatic usage.

You wouldn't say something is "markedly a farce."

You would say something is a "marked farce" -- something like that.

You could also say something is a "palpable farce," but "palpably a farce" is OK.

This is the kind of thing you pick up through massive amounts of reading (not sure whether you also need to be doing massive amounts of writing, too --- )

It's a subtlety of idiomatic usage.

That's all.

Catherine Johnson said...

Today C. got an answer right by consciously using LexAeguitas' 'think like a 13-year old with Asperger syndrome' rule.

That rule is incredibly helpful, but it takes practice -- because what does it mean?

I'll post the question he got right and the question he got wrong ('cuz he didn't use LexAequitas' rule).

Catherine Johnson said...

The one question I missed was a case of disregarding LexAequitas!

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't think of palpably as some sort of absolute.

Citing idiomatic usage again, whenever I see "palpably" or "palpable," it's a stronger term than "marked" or "markedly."

It's more intense.

Possibly because it's so often used to modify the word 'fear' (as I think Hainish pointed out??)

Crimson Wife said...

Ever since our county library system's big book giveaway last September, I've made it a priority to borrow the older titles on my "to-read" list before they are removed from circulation. So most of the books I've read in recent months were published in the late '80's or early '90's. I've been surprised at how much richer the vocabulary is compared to recently-published books aimed at a similar audience. I've found the need to keep a dictionary handy while reading because I keep encountering unfamiliar words.

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve - if you're around - did you find this question in the Blue Book?

If so, I can look up "Tutor Ted's" explanation of the answer --

Catherine Johnson said...

My view is still that lots of reading and vocabulary work can get you down to two choices, but to select between the two, you have to have a lot of experience grokking the test

I don't think it's just a question of grokking the test unless I somehow 'naturally' grok it.

I first took one of the Blue Book tests a couple of years ago and scored 780 or thereabouts; when I started re-taking the tests a month ago, I was still scoring 790 - 800.

I think the answers are right....

That said, and as I keep mentioning, the LexAequitas advice is major.

Catherine Johnson said...

Years ago, one of my professors in grad school told me that turning 30 was great because when you're young you either think too highly of yourself or too lowly of yourself or both.

That's what I see in teenagers.

When they're not over-confident, they're under-confident.

At least, that's what I see around here.

ChemProf said...

I was re-reading some L. Frank Baum recently (as a kid, I was an Oz fanatic), and wonder how much that had to do with my scores on the SAT and GRE verbal. I was a lot more comfortable with complex language and with a range of vocabulary than my students are. In studying for the GRE (which is actually fairly important, if only to know how the score-setting algorithm for the computerized exam works), their biggest complaint is what one student called "slang from the 30s." They don't need big vocabularies to read much of what they do read.

SteveH said...

"Markedly is only used in comparisons:"

This is the best answer I've heard so far. It makes sense, but is it always true? However, they asked about meaning, not usage. It wouldn't bother me so much if obvious really meant palpable. They ask for meaning but they seemed to be looking for something else. Also, the explanation talked about just trying out the different words.


"Citing idiomatic usage again, whenever I see 'palpably' or 'palpable,' it's a stronger term than 'marked' or 'markedly.'

It's more intense."

I agree 100%, but obviously loses that intensity completely.



Catherine, you seem to "get" something that I'm missing. Consistently.

"It's true - and I'm trying to figure out what it is."


Forget this one problem. This is the interesting question. Do you find that the feedback you receive by reading their explanations helps with follow-on questions? It seems that studying the answer is critical, even for the ones you get correct. The question in this thread was not from the Blue Book. Perhaps that's a problem too. Don't practice with unofficial questions and explanations?



"I think the answers are right...."

I'll have to start looking at a lot of real questions and answers.


"That rule is incredibly helpful, but it takes practice -- because what does it mean?"

You're sending out mixed signals here. Perhaps I'm talking about only a few problems; perhaps the difference between 700 or 750 on the test. I think you naturally "get" something from a writing standpoint. Is it because I'm a "math brain"? My first thought when I read the question was strictly about meaning, not usage. I didn't like markedly from a usage standpoint, but that's not what they asked for. I "specifically" remember thinking that right away.