09 November 2011

A few more thoughts about the difficulty of raising Critical Reading scores

Granted I’m no math expert, but from following some of the debates over just why SAT Math is so difficult, it seems to me that there’s a very fundamental difference between that section and Critical Reading — a difference that accounts for a lot of the trouble many people have in raising their CR score as compared to raising their Math score.

From what I gather (and please correct me if I’m wrong), many of the difficulties that people encounter on the Math section stem from the fact that the SAT requires them to deal with relatively familiar concepts in highly unfamiliar ways, and to combine and apply principles in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. The specifics of the test might be different from what they’ve seen in school and can often be very hard, but the general principles behind them aren’t fundamentally new for most people who’ve gone through a couple of years of algebra and geometry. So even they miss a question because they’re used to solving for x instead of (x-y), they’ve still seen plenty of problems in math class that involve variables and parentheses.

The Critical Reading section is different. For a lot of high school students, it’s the verbal equivalent of BC Calculus rather than algebra and geometry. In other words, it tests material of a level and content that they have never actually been exposed to, and it requires them to maneuver with it in ways that they’ve never encountered in school. Even in AP English.

Consider this: in sophomore and junior English class, the average American high school student probably reads a Shakespeare play or two and a handful of classics such as Catcher in the RyeThe Great GatsbyTo Kill a Mockingbird, and maybe some Thoreau, Austen, Dickens, or in an advanced class, Joyce. The point is that pretty much all of it is fictional, and it’s usually set in an English-speaking country sometime in the past. SAT passages, on the other hand, are largely non-fiction and are drawn from contemporary sources — books that were published in the last couple of decades and that include subject matter only the most sophisticated independent high school readers will have even a passing familiarity with: art and media criticism, anthropology, cognitive science, and method acting to name a few. The novels that do appear are just as likely to be written by a nineteenth century Russian author as by a twentieth-century American one, and often the cultural milieux and scenarios are wildly unfamiliar.

The other piece of this is the level at which most of the texts are written — at the risk of sounding reductive, if SAT Math is essentially middle school competition math, as some people have asserted, then Critical Reading is essentially introductory-level college reading. Those texts those passages are taken from are not written specifically to test high school students’ reading ability (even though ETS will often edit them to make them somewhat more digestible) — they’re either written by professional academics for other professional academics, or by specialists in a subject for educated adult readers. And they sound like it.

It seems fair to say that most high school students have simply never been asked to deal with a text that reads like the following: “The question “Why have there been no great women artists?” is simply the top of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky ideas about the nature of art and the situation of its making, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this…Basic to the question are many naive, distorted, uncritical assumptions about the making of art in general, as well as the making of great art.” (from Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” featured on the October 2009 SAT.)

The syntax of last part in particular is so unfamiliar that it tends to stop a lot of kids cold: “Basic to question…?” Are you even allowed to start a sentence that way? (Yes, you are.) And that first sentence is really long — isn’t it a run-on? (No, it isn’t, it’s ok to have a sentence that long.) And why does it have to sound so confusing? (Because that’s just how academics write.) The only way you get comfortable dealing with sentences like that is to read lots of them. There’s no shortcut, no trick. If you haven’t been regularly exposed to people who talk and think and write like that, the reality is that you just can’t compensate in a few weeks or even a few months. Most of the major test-prep companies do not even acknowledge the presence of this level/type of passage when they write their own materials, which is part of why people often get shocked by the difficulty of the real test.

The other problem is that most English classes revolve primarily around discussions, which are easily tuned out, and papers, which can be pulled together with minimal effort via a combination of Sparknotes and Wikipedia. The teacher might give a couple of quizzes just to make sure people are doing their reading, but those are easily dealt with.

In terms of rhetoric, figures such as metaphors and personification might be covered, but that’s about it. Rarely if never are students asked to study how the text functions at its most basic level: how form and syntax and diction all work together to create meaning. Rather, the meaning itself is taken as the starting point for discussion (What do you think about that? Do you agree? Disagree? How does it relate to your own life?). The notion that a text is a rhetorical construction designed to elicit a particular reaction from the reader never enters into play. So it’s no wonder that Critical Reading, whose questions tend to revolve around the relationship between form and meaning, comes as a shock. Besides, if you’ve always been asked for your own personal interpretation in English class, the idea that your own personal interpretation is totally and utterly irrelevant on the SAT can be hard to stomach.

Finally, most high school students are never introduced to the notion that different kinds of texts require different kinds of reading. Because they are only exposed to literary fiction in English class, they develop the idea that “real” reading involves carefully underlining and annotating and note-taking and “analyzing” (although a lot of these supposedly careful readers display a remarkably weak grasp of what the passages as well as the questions are actually saying). As a matter of fact, it isn’t uncommon for students to take offense when I ask them to try reading for the main ideas and skimming over everything else; they consider it a betrayal of everything they’ve been taught and take it as further evidence of the stupidity of standardized testing.

And if the test is so stupid, why would you waste your time studying for it anyway?

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