kitchen table math, the sequel: reading kcab and the SAT

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

reading kcab and the SAT

re: answering SAT reading questions without reading the passage

kcab has just provided a terrific example of real-world multiple-choice.

On the original thread, where people were offering their answers to the 1983 SAT question, "The author’s attitude toward children appears to be one of," kcab wrote:
LOL, what the heck, I pick E.
Seeing this, my immediate reaction was: Really?

E?

kcab picks E?

I have no idea why I was surprised that kcab picked E. I don't 'know' kcab; we've never emailed off-list, and because I've been somewhat AWOL reading comments for a while now, my conscious perception is that I haven't read enough of kcab's comments to have formed an 'image' of kcab.

Nevertheless, I was surprised. I was surprised, and I felt slightly.... uncertain. I wasn't sure I understood.

My second reaction, which occurred seconds later, was: It's a joke.

"LOL"..."What the heck"...

Funny!

Tonight I find kcab's followup:
While I'm commenting, I'm feeling defensive about the answer I gave to the earlier post. I saw that post as a game, one that wasn't quite right. Since I could see that everyone else had picked A, I thought I'd pick anything other than A in the interest of answer diversity. Probably just as well for me that I've never had information about other students' answers on tests.
I was tickled to see this because I wasn't sure I picked the right answer. Was kcab joking or not? I had made my bet and bubbled my bubble; now I wanted to know.

And there you have it. A satisfying case of multiple choice in real life: a distinctly SAT-like case in which two conflicting choices both strike you as being possible, and only the author (kcab, in this case) knows for sure.

That is what reading is all about.

At least, I think that's what reading is all about. I've spent essentially zero time reading about reading, so I don't know what reading scientists think reading is all about. I may see things differently once I do.

For now, my sense is that texts often present us with more than one possible interpretation -- and that in deciding which interpretation fits best, readers likely use cues I haven't thought about since graduate school. That is to say, readers don't just read the literal meaning of the text; readers also perceive or construct an 'author' -- an implied author -- who is part of the text but not the text, or not the whole text:
"[I]t is a curious fact that we have no terms either for this created 'second self' or our relationship with him. None of our terms for various aspects of the narrator is quite accurate. 'Persona,' 'mask,' and 'narrator' are sometimes used, but they more commonly refer to the speaker in the work who is after all only one of the elements created by the implied author and who may be separated from him by large ironies. 'Narrator' is usually taken to mean the 'I' of the work, but the 'I' is seldom if ever identical with the implied image of the artist."
(Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961) - quoted by Richard Nordquis
I don't know what made me read kcab correctly (or incorrectly), but it strikes me that it may have to do with this second self.

There are other possibilities as well.

24 comments:

Barry Garelick said...

In the book "All of the Above" by David Owen (talked about elsewhere on this blog), Owen gives an example of an SAT question of the type where you have to pick a choice of words that go in the blanks of a sentence. He picks an actual question and submits it to various members of the intelligentsia at the time the book was written (early 80's). All five choices were justified.

kcab said...

I'm relieved that you read me correctly! I had intended to add in something to clarify my position, but accidentally deleted that part.

Yesterday I was thinking about a couple of other situations where a student has to consider the implied author in order to get answers correct. The health curriculum at the elementary schools in my town is value laden and sometimes has out-dated information. The multiple choice questions there need to be answered according to the thinking of the people who wrote the booklets. At least that's just elementary school health class and doesn't matter, it's really difficult as a student to know what to do on a test when it looks like a teacher believes incorrect information about a subject (science, for example). Do you answer a question the way you think the teacher wants it answered, or do you use your own understanding of the topic? Either way has risks, unless you are certain of the teacher's position on the topic. (I guess that's actual author though, rather than implied author.)

TerriW said...

I found my daughter doing some sort of online "quiz" about environmental stuff and she was just getting to some question about recycling where, in reality, there was clearly a gray area in whether you would actually consume more resources/energy in attempting to recycle that particular vs. just fashioning a new one.

Anywhoo, I told her, you have to decide on these types of quizzes whether you want to think hard about the true answer to the question, or if you want to give them the answer you know they want to give you to get the points.

My daughter -- who is only 7 -- gave me one of those, "Jeez, Mom" looks and said, "Yeah, I know how to get these right."

I'm not trying to start a political discussion on environmental issues, BELIEVE YOU ME, I am not -- but like the value-laden health curriculum kcab mentions above -- I *think* kids can quickly pick up on when they're being fed a Right Way to think about something and learn how to play the game.

Or, actually, I don't know. My sample set is pretty skewed with myself and my own kids.

I tend to process everything internally on a very meta-level, and it looks like my daughter does, too. So I don't know how common the teasing out of facts vs. "We are telling you how a Right Thinking person should feel about this" occurs in students. (Certainly the recognition that the selection of which facts to learn is part of the shaping of Right Thinking will come much later. Heh.)

Barry Garelick said...

There is some "value-laden" aspect to various topics taught in early grades. In some respects this is unavoidable. But in environmental sciences, the teaching in K-12 never seems to get away from the idealogical and political. TerryW's point is a good one regarding recycling. At some point in K-12, students should be taught to think objectively and not in terms of "recyling-good; waste disposal-bad" or "Industrial companies are all polluters". They really should be teaching the science of the atmosphere with respect to pollutants and their dispersion, the science of groundwater and how pollutants travel and/or are dispersed, etc. Leave the politics for a political science and/or public policy course.

FedUpMom said...

I also picked E, and in hindsight, it's a mistake I've made in other contexts -- I overthought it. While A seemed like the obvious choice, I could imagine a context where E would be correct.

I've seen this described as a problem for gifted students -- they can justify almost any answer.

A friend of mine gave me this advice, when watching Jeopardy! -- "it's always the McDonald's answer". That is, go for the shallow, obvious choice.

Anonymous said...

when watching Jeopardy! -- "it's always the McDonald's answer"

Is this the case for the SATs as well? I haven't taken one in a long time. When I looked at the choices, my initial reaction was against A because it seemed trite. But when I looked at all the choices that were related (I figured there had to be some plausible distractors.) and eliminated the ones that were politically incorrect or could be protested by a parent, A seemed like the best choice.

Jen said...

Fed-Up Mom:

Well, it's usually split the difference on SAT MC questions. I tell students I tutor that they have to think in a narrow band -- just hard enough, but not too hard.

Truly, the SAT is detail and specifics oriented. They are not asking you about YOUR thinking (hence the overthinking problem). They are asking about the author's thinking and their own test writing bias is in their too. But, YOUR thinking on the given topic is pretty much totally irrelevant!

I think in many ways that's the gifted kid problem on the test -- they are so used to being praised for inferences and insights and winding paths of thought that they can't un-insert themselves when answering.

I don't phrase it quite so bluntly to them, of course ;-D I just say they have to keep the volume on their thinking toned down a bit to get in the right range.

Jen said...

in their too

there.

Damn fingers can't spell.

FedUpMom said...

Jen said:

***
I think in many ways that's the gifted kid problem on the test -- they are so used to being praised for inferences and insights
***

Jen, I wouldn't assume that gifted kids are the way they are because they've been praised. I was a gifted kid once, and believe me, I didn't get praised for nothin', especially not in school. My gifted daughter's experience was very similar.

Many teachers actively dislike gifted students, especially girls, who are perceived as "getting above themselves" if they show how smart they are.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The outdated health test info has been seen by us also. My son decided that there was no way he could sit through 9th grade health class (he'd had a hard enough time staying awake through 8th grade health class at his private school, which had better teachers and smaller classes). He decided to "challenge the class" (take the final exam without taking the class), knowing that he'd probably get a lower grade, but figuring it was worth it to avoid 135 hours of boredom.

One of the test questions was about the the ratio of breaths to compressions in CPR—at a time when compression-only CPR was getting a lot of media coverage. Needless to say, there was no "correct" answer agreed on by all the CPR instruction sources—you had to know which particular method they had taught at the school, but of course the materials used in the course (no textbook, just their own handouts) were not available to students challenging the course.

My son got a B on the test, based on just general knowledge. Although this would pull down his GPA, he thought it a worthwhile tradeoff to avoid a mind-numbingly slow class.

Jen said...

Fed-Up --

I'd agree that's likelier in elementary school. If your high school doesn't have some sort of honors or AP options available, where those sorts of discussions are very common, then I'd switch schools!

But, it also doesn't have to be teachers -- parents tend to do this as well.

I wasn't saying your child wasn't insightful, either, or that they weren't gifted. I was merely saying that that sort of thinking is not helpful on the SAT critical reading section. Most gifted kids figure that out pretty quickly. The others just don't ever get above about 700-710 on their critical reading sections!

Glen said...

As a child, my bĂȘte noire was always true-false tests. The more details you know about a topic, the more likely you are to see every answer as, "well, yes and no." True or False: Lincoln was well-educated? Well, he had very limited formal education, which the teacher mentioned and which is what people today tend to mean when they say "educated," so maybe she wants me to say false. But he had extensive self-education, which she also mentioned, and this may be a trap where she's going to argue, "No, education doesn't have to mean formal education, and I told you he was self-educated" which would make it true. But if I answer true, she'll end up marking it wrong and telling me, "Oh, come on, you know what I mean by 'educated'", and someone will tell me--they always do--to stop "overthinking" it. What does "overthinking" mean? Does it mean that answering correctly requires answering as if I knew less? How much less?

And what does "true" mean? Does it mean 100% true? In formal (binary) logic, something that is mostly true is false. So, on a true-false test, if something is mostly true, is it true or false?

Those %#$@ true-false tests drove me nuts.

FedUpMom said...

That reminds me of a poll question from years ago, that asked Americans "what side was Italy on in WWII?" There was much tut-tutting over all the Americans who gave the "wrong" answer.

My answer (again, probably over-thinking!) is that Italy fought on both sides of WWII. They started out on the Axis with Hitler under Mussolini, but by the end of the war they were supplying troops to fight alongside the Allies.

Catherine Johnson said...

Haven't read the thread yet, but I realized on the drive to PA over Thanksgiving why I had 'kcab confusion': I have an 'implied author kcab' in my head, and my implied author kcab doesn't crack jokes in the Comments thread!

(I like jokes - !)

If I had an image of kcab as a Commenter who writes jokes, I would have instantly interpreted her "What the heck, I pick E" comment as a joke.

Catherine Johnson said...

I am now revising the kcab entity who occupies my kitchen table math head.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Barry - I ordered Owen's book.

Also the "Underground SAT" book.

Obviously these were the books I should have had from the get-go.

Either that, or $84K to spend on tutoring.

Catherine Johnson said...

"it's always the McDonald's answer".

oh, that's funny.

Trying to think.....

Offhand, I wouldn't say the right answers are the McDonald's answers -- though I think Elizabeth King probably says something along these lines. (Not to put words in her mouth.)

BEST advice ever (apart from Jen's comment on another thread, which I'm going to put up front) was Lex Aequita's on thinking like a 12-year old with Asperger's syndrome.

Actually, that relates to what Jen said: you absolutely cannot use background knowledge to answer the questions **if** your background knowledge in any way conflicts in any way with the strict meaning on the page.

Catherine Johnson said...

Jen wrote:

I think in many ways that's the gifted kid problem on the test -- they are so used to being praised for inferences and insights and winding paths of thought that they can't un-insert themselves when answering..

You have to radically un-insert yourself.

This aspect of CR is obvious within a few days of working with the passages.

I tutored a student in a neighboring town who said to me, on the second day, "knowing something about the topic could hurt you."

I believe that's not quite true, but it's true enough.

Catherine Johnson said...

Glen wrote: As a child, my bĂȘte noire was always true-false tests. The more details you know about a topic, the more likely you are to see every answer as, "well, yes and no."

Yeah, try writing a true-false test!

Ed and I were talking about test-writing this morning. He helped write the CA state assessments for history. He said it was fantastically difficult to write answers that were clearly wrong -- and yet not so wrong that the right answer became obvious.

I gave up on short answer questions in my composition class. Over and over again, I wrote short-answer questions that had more than one answer.

If I had more time to deal with tests - and assessments - I would probably eventually decide that more-than-one-answer questions are fine, but the only reason I give tests and quizzes is to make sure students do the reading, so.....

I've gone to VERY simple, cut-and-dried multiple choice.

Catherine Johnson said...

Barry wrote: They really should be teaching the science of the atmosphere with respect to pollutants and their dispersion, the science of groundwater and how pollutants travel and/or are dispersed, etc. Leave the politics for a political science and/or public policy course.

DITTO THAT!

Catherine Johnson said...

Terri wrote: I'm not trying to start a political discussion on environmental issues, BELIEVE YOU ME, I am not

oh c'mon!

it'll be fun!

Catherine Johnson said...

Glen wrote: And what does "true" mean? Does it mean 100% true? In formal (binary) logic, something that is mostly true is false. So, on a true-false test, if something is mostly true, is it true or false?


ok, THAT'S over-thinking

(I'm JOKING!)

Catherine Johnson said...

Terri wrote: I tend to process everything internally on a very meta-level, and it looks like my daughter does, too. So I don't know how common the teasing out of facts vs. "We are telling you how a Right Thinking person should feel about this" occurs in students.

Offhand, I would say that nearly everyone does this; I **think** the 'implied author' effect is probably just a way of transferring social skills & social 'intelligence' to text (haven't thought this through...)

I'm guessing the difference is going to lie in how well any particular individual can do it.

(I think the issue of ambiguity in true-false questions is separate.)

Catherine Johnson said...

It's been years since I've engaged with poststructuralism & c., but I think I should add that contemporary specialists in literature would probably say that all texts provide readers with multiple possibilities.

(Take that with a grain of salt. As I say, I haven't kept up. Nevertheless, I myself would probably endorse some variant of the idea that all communication is noisy in some way...)