A couple of years ago, I tutored a pair of best friends for the SAT. Although one of them was considerably more motivated than the other, both were smart, intellectually curious, and lots of fun to work with. Neither, however, was what you would call a natural standardized test-taker when it came to Critical Reading: both had junior PSAT Reading scores around 500. I worked with them regularly starting in the fall of junior year, and fortunately they both managed to pull up their scores quite a bit: by the spring of their junior year, they were both reliably scoring more than 100 points higher, and both ultimately attained scores in the high 600s.

I wish that I could say that their experiences were typical, but unfortunately they were the exception rather than the rule. Critical Reading scores, unlike Writing and Math scores, are notoriously difficult to raise. While I’ve had many students who did manage to raise their CR scores by 100+ points, I’ve had others whose scores I simply could not get to budge, no matter how many different approaches I tried. (As I explained to their parents, I may be very good at what I do, but I do not actually possess magical powers when it comes to the SAT.)

So here I want to discuss the difference between these two groups: the ones who start out low but make huge gains relatively quickly, and the ones who start low and remain stuck below a certain point (usually 600). Their divergent experiences illustrate the distinction between actual test-prep tutoring (that is, tutoring geared almost exclusively to managing the kinds of questions that appear on the SAT) and remediation tutoring (tutoring geared primarily toward developing literal comprehension).

Despite their initial low scores, both of the boys I worked with a couple of years ago had some major things going for them: they came from upper middle-class families and had highly educated, intellectually-oriented parents who were willing to spend substantial amounts of time drilling them on vocabulary, whether they wanted to study it or not; access to a challenging curriculum that regularly exposed them to the level of text found on the SAT; a high degree of curiosity, including an interest in relatively sophisticated subjects (e.g. seventeenth century Dutch art); and little trouble understanding or identifying the main point of most Critical Reading passages. In other words, they had all of the fundamentals pretty much down — they just needed to learn to apply them to the SAT.

I think that the assumption underlying a lot of test-prep is that most students fall into this general category. The problem is that most of them don’t.

One of the first things I learned about teaching Critical Reading was that students had to begin by identifying the main point and tone of a passage; it was simply a given that said students would understand what they were reading well enough to identify those elements with relatively little effort and then be able to apply them in order to answer the questions.

What I rapidly discovered, however, was that a lot of students got stuck way before they got to the questions themselves. They couldn’t even figure out the main point because they didn’t actually understand what they were reading. Sometimes, they were so thrown by the sheer unfamiliarity of the language that they couldn’t even tell what the topic was, never mind how to look for important information about it.

These students form the second category, the ones for whom strategy-based test prep tends to be largely ineffective. Because they can’t really understand what they’re reading, they can’t figure out what’s important and thus can’t skim efficiently; consequently, they often spend too much time reading passages and simply trying to make some sense out of them. Because their vocabulary – and sometimes their decoding – skills are weak, they often can’t follow general rules such as “eliminate extreme answers” or make fine distinctions between answer choices. And because they can’t identify main points effectively, Passage 1/Passage 2 relationship questions are often a complete mystery to them and tend to be disastrous for their scores.

If their families can afford it, these tend to be the kids who go through Kaplan and Princeton Review (and sometimes places like Inspirica and Advantage) without gaining a single point. Then sometimes they come to me.

The more students I work with in this category, the more I also notice some specific weaknesses that they seem to share: first, they tend to have trouble understanding word relationships. Even if they memorize vocabulary, they often get thrown by words used in unusual ways, and they have difficulty separating negative and positive ideas from negative and positive words (e.g. a sentence that contains a positive idea and a negation may require a negative word). They also tend to have a lot of trouble reading sequentially: instead of starting at the beginning of a sentence and reading word by word until the end, they often skip around internally, focusing on individual words without considering their context.

As a result, they sometimes not only fail to understand what an author is saying but also end up with an interpretation that is only tangentially related to the actual meaning! Likewise, they have considerable difficulty reading answer choices in order. They’ll often skip from (A) to (D) to (B), seizing on particular words but failing to consider what the answers as a whole are actually saying; and when they see a word or phrase in an answer choice that matches a word or phrase they’ve seen in the passage, they’ll often jump to pick it without considering whether it means something different in the passage.

The final piece is that they often lack context. Because they do not read SAT-level material on their own and often lack even basic familiarity with the topics that appear on the test, they have no way of using their prior knowledge to bootstrap themselves into a basic understanding of what they read (note: this is very different from using outside knowledge to pick answers while neglecting the passage itself). They also tend to come from families that spend more time watching television or playing sports than discussing books or current events.

A student who barely knows what the Mona Lisa is, why it’s so famous, who da Vinci was, and how to pronounce his name will have infinitely more difficulty with a passage about than a student familiar with all of those things. While students in this situation can benefit from some strategizing (knowing what questions to skip and which ones to go for; doing the questions as they read the passage to save time), there is no way to get past the fundamental weakness in their skills without a huge amount of work. The SAT is designed to ruthlessly detect gaps in comprehension, and it does so with a remarkable degree of effectiveness. Below a certain level of understanding, there is no real way to “beat” the test. The College Board makes certain of that. Dramatically improving the score of a student who is missing some of the basics involves a lot more than SAT prep. It involves solidifying skills that most test-prep programs take for granted. Unless a student is willing to devote an extraordinary amount of time to reading independently, there is no short-term solution. A couple of sessions won’t do it. Neither will a couple of months. Given six months to a year, I might be able to do something, but even then it isn’t a guarantee.

I honestly find myself at a loss when I encounter a student in this situation. No one wants to hear that they (or their child) is missing fundamental skills and that there’s no quick fix. Particularly if they believe that doing well on the SAT is just a matter of learning the right tricks (or worse, getting familiar with the test), it can be very hard to tell them otherwise. Sometimes I can get their score from the low 500s to the high 500s, but rarely can I get it to 650 or even to 600 — and that’s what they want. Those are the times I wish that I did have a magic wand, but alas, such an object is nowhere to be found.