I’m writing this in response to the SAT Reading vs. Math post over at Kitchen Table Math. In case you don’t want to read the entire post, the gist of it was essentially that college tend to be more impressed by high Critical Reading scores than they are by high Math scores because SAT Reading scores essentially can’t be raised through tutored (although Catherine was nice enough to cite me as the exception to that rule!). So, as someone who spends a good deal of time on this purportedly impossible task, my response to the assertion that CR is somehow un-tutorable would be no and yes. Or rather, it depends.

Before I launch into my reasons, however, I’d like to say that tutoring CR is one of the hardest parts of my job. For starters, it’s completely exhausting — I spent about three-and-a-half hours one day this past weekend just doing CR (one of those hours was devoted *just* to working on how to determine a main point), and I had to go home and sleep afterward. Teaching CR ruins me for the day; it wears me out mentally so much that I often just have to wander around the city aimlessly for a few hours to recover.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy teaching it, and when I finally have a breakthrough with someone, it’s hugely rewarding. But it is hard. I think that this is because teaching CR– at least the way I do it — is not just about the SAT; it’s actually about teaching people to read closely (“Don’t tell me approximately what the author says. Look at the passage — no, look at the passage — and tell me exactly what the author is saying. Exactly as in word for word.”) and to draw relationships between specific words and their functions or the more abstract categories they represent (“Yes, the passage talks specifically about women artists, but the fact that they’re referred to as a group of individuals in the answer choice doesn’t mean you should eliminate it. Think about whom that phrase is referring to”). A few of my students see these relationships naturally. Most do not. Some lack the decoding skills to even begin to draw these relationships, but the majority fall some somewhere in between.

But back to the original question: when it tutoring effective for raising a CR score, and when is it not?

My first response would be, “define raise.” Are we talking 50 points? 100 points? 200 points? Most people will get something out of high-quality tutoring, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect someone with a 550 to try for an 800 — at least in the short term. And the higher scores go, the harder it is to raise them — the margin of error is so tiny, sometimes even a question or two out of 67, that it almost comes down to chance. (For the record, I have gotten people from the mid-600s to 800, but they had virtually no comprehension problems and were willing to work very, very carefully and do everything I said).

The second thing I would say is that the crucial factor isn’t the person’s baseline score but rather their actual skill at understanding relationships between words (for sentence completions) and comprehending the meaning of relatively sophisticated texts. Kids who have no trouble understanding what the passages are literally saying but who work too quickly and fall for wrong answers because they don’t read carefully or think through the questions probably have at least the potential to score in the high 600s or 700s. I’ve had students in this category who started around 500 (junior PSAT) and ended up close to 700 (senior SAT).

On the other hand, someone with a poor vocabulary and trouble perceiving relationships between words, plus weak comprehension skills is probably not going to make it past 600 with strategy-based tutoring alone. If the person is willing to spend very significant amounts of time reading and working on vocabulary independently, that’s a different story, but that is not realistically the case for most high school juniors. I’ve helped students in that situation move from the low to the high 500s, but they all got stuck below the 600 line. In that case, the SAT does precisely what it was designed to do: it reveals persistent weaknesses in comprehension, and there’s really no way to “beat” it past a certain point.

So in general, I think that high-quality CR tutoring can be effective insofar as it allows people to take the fullest advantage of the reading skills they do have. But the “600” and “700 walls” are there for a reason — students who don’t read much on their own and who don’t really understand how texts work (how authors play with language to convey a point, how very common words can be used in unexpected ways to mean different things, and how specific phrasings relate to broader concepts), and no amount of test-prep alone will typically get them past it.