“Certain” doesn’t mean “right”

Like familiarity and mastery, certainty and correctness are two concepts that people often have a tendency to get confused out there in standardized test-land.

So for the record, I would like to state unequivocally and without qualification that it is entirely possible to be both absolutely certain and absolutely wrong. I don’t think that that’s a particularly radical — or even disputable — concept, but something about standardized testing makes people go a little cuckoo and reject what would otherwise be relatively commonsense notions.

To reiterate: if you are taking the SAT and are absolutely, totally, utterly convinced that the answer to a particular Critical Reading question cannot possibly be (C), your strong sense of conviction has no bearing whatsoever on whether the answer actually is (C).

Now granted, if you really know what you’re doing, the chances of that kind of conviction being way off base are substantially reduced, but it’s the principle of the matter that I’m concerned about here.

And besides, I see relatively high-scoring students eliminate correct answers all the time because they’re totally sure that those answers can’t possibly be right.

Why bother to insist so hard on this distinction? Well, when people talk about eliminating answers and guessing, they often base their suggestions that people guess if they can definitely eliminate one or more answer on a fallacy — that students can 1) reliably distinguish between right and wrong answers and are therefore 2) only eliminating answers that are actually wrong.

Yes, some answers are clearly absurd; I’m not going to dispute that. But not all of them are. In fact, when tutors assume that students can reliably recognize wrong answers, they also overlook another rather important piece of information: wrong answers are written to sound eminently plausible, even if they’re, well, not. They’re also written to capitalize on the average high school junior’s knowledge gaps, hence their reputation for being “tricky.”

Note, if you will, my repeated use of the word conviction earlier in this post. Critical Reading answers that contain the word conviction are very often correct, which may seem odd and random to anyone who hasn’t spent lots of time talking about words — particularly alternate meanings of words — with high school juniors.

Would you like to guess what most of my students say when I ask them what conviction means when used in a context like the one it’s used in above?

They say it has something to do with criminals.

The fact that it might have an alternate meaning quite literally does not occur to them. Most of them have either not seen it used as the noun form of convinced, or if they have, never realized that it actually had that meaning.

Occasionally a parent will tell me that they decided to go over some vocab with their child and were absolutely astonished to discover how poor said child’s vocabulary was. They’re not talking about the “hard” words either — they’re talking about the second meanings of common words, like conviction and bent. It simply never occurred to them that their child could not know those things.

I usually just shrug and say that their child is normal; most of my students don’t know those meanings, and the ones who do frankly tend not to need me. It doesn’t do much to reassure them — they’re really and truly freaked that their children don’t know these words. They’re looking at the SAT from the perspective of a college-educated adult and taking for granted that their teenagers hold the same (relatively sophisticated) assumptions about how English works when in fact most of them haven’t yet developed the ability to think about language with that kind of nuance.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t just a digression — it does relate to my original point about guessing. Because most test-takers don’t realize that conviction means “being convinced” and instead think it might have something to do with Law and Order, what do you think they do when they see it appear as an answer choice? That’s right, they cross it off. Immediately. Because they’re absolutely certain that it has nothing whatsoever to do with what the sentence or the passage is talking about. Except that of course that word captures precisely what’s going on in the sentence or the passage.

It’s interesting: I had no particular preconceptions or agenda about the SAT when I first started tutoring it. It was simply something I’d always been able to do naturally and happened to be good at explaining to other people. But the more I look at the test, the more I realize how absolutely brilliantly constructed it is. Occasional ambiguities aside, it does a truly remarkable job of pinning down the exact areas that teenagers tend to have the most trouble with and testing them in ways that reveal gaps pretty baldly. (That’s why opponents of the test have to insist so vehemently that it’s meaningless.) I don’t deny that certain shortcuts and “tricks” aren’t very effective in some cases, but they only work if someone already has a pretty sophisticated level of understanding.

I don’t want to make anyone paranoid about crossing off answer choices or encourage the “everything is a trick mindset.” That’s not productive either, and that’s not fundamentally what the SAT is about. What is productive is to take a few moments and actually consider what an answer choice is actually saying before you get rid of it.

A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t restate what an answer is saying clearly in your own words, you don’t understand what it’s saying well enough to make a conclusive judgment about it. Forget about it and work from the answer choices that you truly do understand; think about what they’re actually saying too before you cross them out.

In case you haven’t noticed, the grand theme here is that you have to keep thinking at every step, and that you have to be honest with yourself about what you do and don’t know. Because once you’ve thought things through, you can go ahead and be pretty certain about what you’re doing –and sometimes that’s the best you can ask for.