18 June 2013

The answer isn’t always *in* the passage

A while back, a student who was trying to raise his Critical Reading score came to me with complaint: “Everyone always says that the answer is right there in the passage,” he told me. “But I feel like that’s not always the case.”

He was right, of course. He’d also hit on one of the many half-truths of SAT prep, one that frequently gets repeated with the best of intentions but that ends up confusing the heck out of a lot of people.

As I’ve written about before, most SAT prep programs spend a fair amount of time drilling it into their students’ heads that the only information necessary to answer Critical Reading questions can be found in the passages themselves, and that test-takers should never, under any circumstances, use their own knowledge of a subject to try to answer a question. They’re right (well, most of the time, but the exceptions are sufficiently rare and apply to so few people that they’re not worth getting into here).

In trying to avoid one problem, however, they inadvertently create a different one. The danger in that piece of advice is that it overlooks a rather important distinction: yes, the answer can be determined solely from the information in the passage, but the answer itself is not necessarily in the passage.

A lot of the time, this confusion stems from the fact that people misunderstand what certain kinds of questions are asking: virtually all function questions — questions that ask about what a particular phrase or set or lines serve to do — as well as analogy questions, questions about strengthening/undermining arguments, and inference questions are testing the ability to move from concrete to abstract. That is, to draw a connection between specific wordings in the passage and their role within the argument (emphasize, criticize, assert, etc.). The entire POINT of the test is that the answers to some questions can’t be found directly in the passage.

Correct answers either describe what is occurring rhetorically in the passage or paraphrase its content using synonyms. You need to use the information in the passage and then make a cognitive leap. It’s the ability to make that leap, and to understand why one kind of leap is reasonable and another one isn’t, that’s being tested. If you only look at the answer choices in terms of the passage’s content, they won’t make any sense, or else they’ll seem terribly ambiguous. Only when you understand how they relate to the actual goal of the question do they begin to make sense. In other words, comprehension is necessary but not sufficient.

While knowing all this won’t necessarily help you figure out any answers, it can, at the very least, help to clarify just what the SAT is trying to do and just why the answers are phrased the way they are. If you can shift from reading just for content to reading for structure — that is, understanding that authors use particular examples or pieces of evidence to support one argument or undermine another — the test starts to make a little more sense. And if you know upfront that the answer is unlikely to be found directly in the passage and that you need to be prepared to work it out yourself, you won’t waste precious time or energy getting confused when you do look at the choices. And sooner or later, you might even get to the point of being able to predict some of the answers on your own.

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