04 October 2013

If it’s not true in the real world, it’s not true on the test

Established fact: a statement can be true in the real world but still be an incorrect answer on the SAT or ACT.

Pretty much every test-prep book you’ll ever read will tell you this. So, for example, you see an answer that says that Shakespeare is one of the greatest dramatists in the English language, you shouldn’t automatically assume it’s true because that statement might not actually be supported by the passage. I’m not about to disagree with that.

What no one talks about, however, is the fact that statements are NOT true in the real world are, for all intents and purposes, NOT correct answers to SAT questions.

So, for example, an answer choice that reads “scientists have made no progress in solving problems,” or “scientific and artistic achievement are fundamentally incompatible” is more or less guaranteed not to be correct. Those answers aren’t just extreme — they’re blatantly at odds with reality. And it’s fair to say that the SAT is biased in favor of reality.

Now, theoretically there could be an exception, but the chances of one occurring are pretty darn slim. (Maybe on a “which of the following would most undermine the assertion in lines 25-37?” question. But otherwise, it’s a very big stretch).

Yet I consistently see students — even high-scoring one — pick answers like these. When I point out that these answers have no basis in the real world, they’re surprised; it never even occurred to them to look at the test that way. I suspect that at some level they’ve been so brainwashed by the whole “the SAT is trying to trick you” and “the only thing that the SAT tests is how well you take the SAT” mentality that they don’t quite realize just what the test will and will not do. This is part of why I hate the whole “tricky” thing so much — it tends to make people jettison their common sense, and much of doing well on the SAT is simply about pushing common sense to its absolute extreme.

As a side note, that’s the other thing I keep telling my students: the test is set up so that you can figure things out, even if you don’t know 100% what you’re doing. Your job is to focus on what you do know and use that to get to what you don’t.

But back to the issue at hand — why couldn’t the test just be trying to trick you by making the correct answer some bizarre thing has nothing to do with reality?

Here’s why:

One of the things no one ever seems to mention about the SAT and ACT is that they are designed to mimic the kind of academic and journalist “conversation” that happens in the real, adult world beyond high school. You know, the sorts of things you’ll tend to encounter in college (if you bother to do your reading, that is). On the reading side, at least, it’s partly a test of how familiar you are with the sort of language and ideas you find in publications like, say, The New York Times. So if you know who Angela Merkel is and what her economic policies are doing to Greece, chances are you won’t get weirded out if a sentence completion requires you to know what “fiscal austerity” is.

Standardized-test reading might feel very fake, and in many ways it is very inauthentic, but given the unavoidable limits of the standardized-testing format, it actually does a pretty good job of doing what it’s intended to do. (Passage 1/Passage 2 is based on the same principle as NYT’s “Room for Debate” series — and interestingly, commenters often exhibit the same comprehension errors that many test-takers fall prey to, most often ascribing much more extreme positions to writers than those that they actually espouse.)

It’s important to keep that real-world framework in mind in terms of “reading the test,” and it’s something I now go way out of my way to remind my students about. So as you’re reading through those answers tomorrow, trying to figure out which ones you can truly eliminate, ask yourself whether they make sense… like, for real.

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