10 May 2011

Why you should only use the official guides for SAT & ACT Reading

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you probably know that I’m not a big fan of the big-name test-prep guides (e.g. Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barron’s, etc.). But while I admit that they might have some merit for Math, the one section that you should absolutely and incontrovertibly not compromise on, at least in terms of taking practice tests, is Reading.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) The answer choices are problematic

The answers are either 1) improperly reasoned, 2) go outside the bounds of the passage — that is, they actually require you to have some outside knowledge of a subject in order to infer the answer to a question — or 3) force you to make irrelevant distinctions. What ultimately happens is that people walk away with the impression that the answers to questions are arbitrary, that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with the readings themselves. It also makes it impossible to apply any sort of rigorous reasoning process to the test, when in fact it is precisely the refinement of that reasoning process that often leads to higher scores. SAT and ACT questions may feel tricky at times, but the right answer is still the only right answer, not something completely arbitrary cooked up by the test-makers.

2) The passages themselves are wrong

This usually comes down to one issue: copyright. Most of the passages that show up on the SAT and ACT are taken from books published in the last couple of decades, i.e. books still under copyright. In order to accurately mimic the test, therefore, it is necessary to use texts from recent works. The College Board and the ACT are able to gain permission for the works from the publishers; for whatever reason, the major test-prep companies usually are not. (I’m pretty sure there’s a Michael Pollan passage in one of Princeton Review’s books, but that’s the exception rather than the rule). As a result, those companies are forced to use either texts no longer under copyright (from books more than 70 years old) or have passages written specifically for them. Both of these have major issues.

First, texts more than 70 years old, while difficult, are not difficult in the precise way that real SAT/ACT texts are difficult. Their language, style, and subject matter are often old-fashioned, and they give the impression that the reading portions of both tests loftier and more overtly literary than they are.

On the other hand, passages written specifically for test-prep guides tend to be overly straightforward and factual, whereas real test passages are usually somewhat more complex structurally and are chosen specifically because they contain a particular point of view. (Debbie Stier calls them “quirky,” and I’m inclined to agree.) So please, do yourself a favor: if you haven’t been using the College Board book or the ACT Official Guide for Reading, go out and get it. And if you’ve finished all the tests in it and want to study some more, sign up for the online program. And if you’re done with that, well, go read something by Michael Pollan (or Oliver Sacks or Temple Grandin or Anna Deveare Smith) for real.

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