It’s relatively common knowledge that “extreme” answers (ones that contain words like “always” or “never”) tend to be incorrect, but what doesn’t often get discussed is just why those sorts of answers are often wrong and how that reason relates to the overall goal of what the SAT is trying to test.

As I wrote about recently, one of the great themes of Critical Reading is that there’s “always a however” — that is, arguments are not black-and-white, that they contain nuances. Simply saying “well, x is obviously always right, and everyone who disagrees is an idiot” is not a particularly effective mode of argumentation. That’s part of the reason Passage 1/Passage 2 exists.

Ever notice that when one author presents one side of an argument in black-and-white terms, the other author will come back arguing exactly the opposite side? That’s not a coincidence. The point that the test is trying to make is that stating that something is true very strongly does not actually make it true, nor does it negate that fact that there are plenty of arguments against it. If you want to make a solid argument, you have to seriously consider the opposite side and think about how it fits into your argument — that goes a degree beyond what the SAT tests, but the skills that P1/P2 tests are the basis for that ability.

Note, by the way, that considering degrees of nuance is exactly the OPPOSITE of what most people are taught when it comes to the SAT essay (and, might I add, in school). That’s not to say you can’t earn a very high score arguing in extreme, black-and-white terms (indeed, it’s usually much easier to do so in the space of 25 minutes), simply that training yourself to look at only one side of an argument is a stellar way to blunt your understanding of how to approach Critical Reading.

So that’s point one.

The second, closely related point is that is individual experiences cannot necessarily be generalized, and that different people will hold different positions shaped by their background, social circumstances, etc. The assumptions you hold about the world might not be true for the kid who sits next to you in Bio, or who lives down the street or on another continent — even though you can all be classified as members of the category “teenager” or perhaps “teenagers studying for the SAT. In other words, what is true about a particular person or type of person (teenager, artist, scientist, anthropologist) cannot automatically be extended to every single other person or type of person — and the failure to fully grasp that idea is one of the fallacies on which many wrong Critical Reading answers are based. This is why answers that are “too broad” or “too extreme” are frequently (but not always) incorrect. It’s also why so many SAT rhetorical strategy questions ask you to notice personal anecdotes; relying on your own experience as your sole support for a claim does not a particularly solid argument make.

One of the things that I’ve noticed while tutoring is that my students have tendency to conflate the specific and the general — so, for example, if a passage discusses a particular painter and i ask them what the passage is about, I’ll often get a response like “painters.” At some level, they don’t seem to completely grasp the importance of the distinction between the singular and the plural; I know that because they often roll their eyes when I ask them how many painters the passage actually talked about. “Ok, fine,” I can hear them thinking, “it was only one painter, but who cares? Isn’t that, like, basically the same thing?”

Actually no, it’s completely different.

What’s really interesting to me, however, is the way in which this type of faulty reasoning replicates itself in discussions about SAT prep — the irony is really quite impressive. On one hand, this isn’t at all surprising: if people have trouble with the SAT because their logical reasoning skills are lacking, that weakness is going to manifest itself equally outside the test. But just for grins, let’s look at some of the most common. Notice the extreme language common to all of them:

-If I can do it, anyone can do it

Umm… Let’s examine that claim. Maybe you studied for a couple of years and raised your score 500 points to a 2350 — it certainly happens — but presumably you didn’t have a serious decoding problem (that is, you could actually read the words on the page and weren’t constantly guessing what unfamiliar words meant), were at some point capable of perceiving the underlying patterns in the test, had a good enough memory to retain all the vocabulary you were learning, and already knew many of the elementary and middle-school level words that the SAT tests (e.g. permanent, compromise, tendency. And that’s just a handful of skills for Critical Reading.

Having worked with kids who had serious trouble with all of the above, I can state pretty confidently that those are not things that can be taken for granted for every student. If a student has trouble with all of them, it’s a pretty safe bet that a 2350 — or even a 2000 — is not a realistic goal. An 1850 is actually a pretty solid score to start with; it’s usually an indicator that someone primarily needs to learn to take the test and that the underlying skills are more or less ok. In that context, 500 is points is a lot, but given the steepness of the curves on Writing and Math, it’s a difference of not all that many questions.

But there is a whole huge category of kids whose basic skills cannot be taken for granted and for whom raising their score even 100 points is a massive struggle. Kids with high-achieving peers and tutors with high-achieving students tend not be aware of their existence and therefore fall prey to another common logical misstep: if I haven’t seen it, it doesn’t exist (the underlying assumption being that they’ve already been exposed to the full range of achievement levels, or that their particular experience is somehow representative of the high school population as a whole).

Having worked with kids at pretty much the full spectrum (mid-300s to mid-700s), I can say pretty securely — and perhaps coldly — that not every kid has what it takes to improve by hundreds of points. Sometimes the deficits are just too extreme.

-SAT prep classes/tutors are completely worthless because I did really well just studying on my own

I’ve worked with lots of very smart kids who did fabulously once they were actually taught just what the test was asking them to do but who might not have figured it out by themselves. It’s nice that you did really well on your own, but you can’t conclude anything other than that tutors and/or prep classes would have been completely worthless for you. (Besides, even if you did amazingly, you might have also learned something from a tutor — for example, plenty of people manage to do very well on CR without really understanding what it’s testing.)

All SAT prep classes/tutors are completely worthless because they just teach you all the same strategies you could read in the books

That has an element of truth when it comes to strategy-based prep (at least in terms of classes), but if you need work on the actual skills, you’re probably better off sitting with someone who can actually teach them to you.

-Since I wouldn’t have done well on the SAT without a tutor, everyone who doesn’t have one must be at a huge disadvantage. Therefore, the only thing the SAT tests is how much money you have to prep.

Again, there’s a kernel of truth — as everyone knows, there is a direct correlation between SAT scores and income. Are kids who grow up in seriously educationally deficient environments at a huge disadvantage? Of course. Are wealthy kids whose parents can afford thousands of dollars for private tutoring at an advantage? Of course. Is that fair? Of course not.

But those are generalizations, and correlation does not equal causation: there are kids who can’t afford tutoring but who can sit down independently with a prep books and figure out everything they need to know; likewise, there are kids who get tutored for a year or more and don’t increase their scores at all (or worse, see them go down). Both are outliers, but they do exist.

There are also kids whose parents can afford tutoring but who are perfectly happy to sit down on their own with a prep book. If some of them score very well, it’s usually in large part because they’ve grown up in an enriched environment and got all the skills they needed just from their parents and school.

The fact that a tutor helped one particular person do well can by no means be generalized into the assumption that every person needs a tutor to do well, or that it’s impossible to do well unless you come from a well-off background.

And my personal fave:

-The only thing the SAT tests is how well you take the SAT

Does anyone truly believe that a kid who doesn’t know what “permanent” means can be expected to perform at the same level as one who’s studied three languages, reads Dickens in her spare time, and holds a position in the National Classical League? Or that a kid who struggles to get B’s in Algebra II (like I did) is seriously competitive with a national Math Olympian? Somehow I don’t think so. Yes, everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, but at the extreme ends of ability, the differences are so gaping that they’re pretty much impossible ignore.

It’s also possible to be very smart and still be missing important skills, and it’s a lot easier to blame the test for your shortcomings rather than own up to the possibility that you might not know as much as you think.