The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

When transition questions are discussed in regard to SAT Writing/ACT English, they tend to be covered in two main forms. 

The first way involves a transition placed after a comma in the middle of a sentence. 

Version #1: The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant vanilla flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but growers were unable to collect its glorious seeds.   (more…)

The one thing an SAT/ACT English tutor should never say

It’s back to school time… which is right about when high school juniors and their parents often start to think about prep options for the SAT or ACT. In recognition of that fact, I’m planning to devote the next few posts to issues involving tutoring and classes: what to know, what to ask, and how to decide which option is right for you.

While there are many factors to consider when choosing a tutor, there are a handful of warning signs that should cause you to run in the opposite direction. As a “second-round” tutor whose students often worked with one or more tutors before me, I had ample opportunity to learn about all manners of ineffective teaching.

I’d like to cover one of the biggest red flags here.

So, the number one thing that an SAT or ACT tutor should NOT say when teaching grammar is (drumroll, please)… “Just use your ear.”

(Or: “Just try to hear if it sounds right.” Or, when commas are involved: “Does it feel like you need a pause there?” Or any equivalent statement.)

For the record, there are exceptions, most notably idiom questions, which can only be answered by ear. In addition, some constructions, particularly on the ACT, sound so obviously and overwhelmingly wrong that parsing the exact nature of their incorrectness is a waste of time.

But as a general rule, anyone who encourages students to rely on their ears at the expense of actually learning the grammatical rules tested is not qualified to be tutoring these tests, or at least the English/Writing sections.

First, that statement is based on the assumption that students are capable of identifying correct answers by ear. If that were the case, however, those students probably wouldn’t need tutoring in the first place! 

Second, although English is obviously more subjective than math, the reality is that standardized test grammar is closer to the latter than it is to the former. The SAT and the ACT cover a specific set of grammatical concepts, which are consistently tested in more or less the same format. Some of these concepts may be more flexible in real life, but these tests are not concerned with real-world exceptions and nuances.

The exact context in which concepts are presented will of course change, and concepts might be combined in slightly novel ways, but for the most part, things are quite straightforward. If you’ve assimilated the rules thoroughly and understand how to apply them, you get the questions right; if you haven’t, you don’t.

Commas, for example, are correctly used in four primary instances: before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or but) to join two independent clauses; before an independent clause preceded by a dependent clause; to set off non-essential clauses that can be removed from a sentence without affecting its essential meaning; and between the items in a list.

Sometimes, it may seem natural to insert a pause in these situations, but that is ultimately irrelevant. The issue is not whether a pause make sense, but whether a comma is grammatically required.

Even students who are exceptionally well-read and who can rely on their ears in most situations can almost always benefit from studying the logic behind questions they understand intuitively.

It is exceedingly unlikely that any tutor would ever encourage a student to think of answers to math questions in terms of whether they seemed natural (“Does five feel like a right answer to you?”), yet this attitude is surprisingly common when grammar is concerned.

Part of the problem is that tutors who are natural high-scorers may themselves not be fully aware of why right answers are right and wrong answers are wrong. People who are able to successfully rely on their ears are often unaware of just how much understanding they take for granted. 

Regardless of the reason, this approach is also extraordinarily unhelpful and likely to result in considerable frustration, scores that improve only marginally if at all, and possibly months (and months) of wasted time and money.

So if you’re a parent considering hiring a tutoring for your child, it’s worth your while to ask one simple question: how, exactly, do you cover the English/Writing section?

The answer might be very telling. 




SAT/ACT grammar book supplements will soon be available

For those of you who have purchased the The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 3rd Edition, or The Complete Guide to ACT English and are now planning to take the SAT or the ACT in addition to the test you originally studied for, I will be making an ACT supplement available for my SAT grammar book and an SAT supplement available for my ACT book. 

If you’ve emailed me in regard to this issue, please be aware that I am working on it, and that I’ll be posting purchase details as they become available. 


On the new SAT essay, pt. 4: right kind of text, wrong kind of reading

For the last part in this series, I want to consider the College Board’s claim that the redesigned SAT essay is representative of the type of assignments students will do in college.

Let’s start by considering the sorts of passages that students are asked to analyze.

As I previously discussed, the redesigned SAT essay is based on the rhetorical essay from the AP English Language and Composition (AP Comp) exam. While they comprise a wide range of themes, styles, and periods, the passages chosen for that test are usually selected because they are exceptionally interesting from a rhetorical standpoint. Even if the works they are excerpted from would most likely be studied in their social/historical context in an actual college class, it makes sense to study them from a strictly rhetorical angle as well. Different types of reading can be appropriate for different situation, and this type of reading in this particular context is well justified.

In contrast, the texts chosen for analysis on the new SAT essay are essentially the type of humanities and social science passages that routinely appear on the current SAT – serious, moderately challenging contemporary pieces intended for an educated general adult audience. To be sure, this type of writing is not completely straightforward: ideas and points of views are often presented in a manner that is subtler than what most high school readers are accustomed to, and authors are likely to make use of the “they say/I say” model, dialoguing with and responding to other people’s ideas. Most students will in fact do a substantial amount of this type of reading in college.

By most academic standards, however, these types of passages would not be considered rhetorical models. It is possible to analyze them rhetorically – it is possible to analyze pretty much anything rhetorically – but a more relevant question is why anyone would want to analyze them rhetorically. Simply put, there usually isn’t all that much to say. As a result, it’s entirely unsurprising that students will resort to flowery, overblown descriptions that are at odds with actual moderate tone and content of the passages. In fact, that will often be the only way that students can produce an essay that is sufficiently lengthy to receive a top score.

There are, however, a couple of even more serious issues.

First, although the SAT essay technically involves an analysis, it is primarily a descriptive essay in the sense that students are not expected to engage with either the ideas in the text or offer up any ideas of their own. With exceedingly few exceptions, however, the writing that students are asked to do in college with be thesis-driven in the traditional sense – that is, students will be required to formulate their own original arguments, which they then support with various pieces of specific evidence (facts, statistics, anecdotes, etc.) Although they may be expected to take other people’s ideas into account and “dialogue” with them, they will generally be asked to do so as a launching pad for their own ideas. They may on occasion find it necessary to discuss how a particular author presents his or her evidence in order to consider a particular nuance or implication, but almost never will they spend an entire assignment focusing exclusively on the manner in which someone else presents an argument. So although the skills tested on the SAT essay may in some cases be a useful component of college work, the essay itself has virtually nothing to do with the type of assignments students will actually be expected to complete in college.

By the way, for anyone who wants understand the sort of work that students will genuinely be expected to do in college, I cannot recommend Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say strongly enough. This is a book written by actual freshman composition instructors with decades of experience. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t have much to do with what the test-writers at the College Board imagine that college assignments look like.

Now for the second point: the “evidence” problem.

As I’ve mentioned before, the SAT essay prompt does not explicitly ask students to provide a rhetorical analysis; rather, it asks them to consider how the writer uses “evidence” to build his or her argument. That sounds like a reasonable task on the surface, but it falls apart pretty quickly once you start to consider its implications.

When students do the type of reading that the SAT essay tests in college, it will pretty much always be in the context of a particular subject (sociology, anthropology, economics, etc.). By definition, non-fiction is both dependent on and engaged with the world outside the text. There is no way to analyze that type of writing meaningfully or effectively without taking that context into account. Any linguistic or rhetorical analysis would always be informed by a host of other, external factors that pretty much any professor would expect a student to discuss. There is a reason that “close reading” is normally associated with fiction and poetry, whose meanings are far less dependent on outside factors. Any assignment that asks students to analyze a non-fiction author’s use of evidence without considering the surrounding context is therefore seriously misrepresenting what it means to use evidence in the real world.

In college and in the working world, the primary focus is never just on how evidence is presented, but rather how valid that evidence is. You cannot simply present any old facts that happen to be consistent with the claim you are making – those facts must actually be true, and any competent analysis must take that factor into account. The fact that professors and employers complain that students/employees have difficulty using evidence does not mean that the problem can be solved just by turning “evidence” into a formal skill. Rather, I would argue that the difficulties students and employees have in using evidence effectively is actually a symptom of a deeper problem, namely a lack of knowledge and perhaps a lack of exposure to (or an unwillingness to consider) a variety of perspectives.

If you are writing a Sociology paper, for example, you cannot simply state that the author of a particular study used statistics to support her conclusion, or worse, claim that an author’s position is “convincing” or “effective,” or that it constitutes a “rich analysis” because the author uses lots of statistics as evidence. Rather, you are responsible for evaluating the conditions under which those statistics were gathered; for understanding the characteristics of the groups used to obtain those statistics; and for determining what factors may not have been taken into account in the gathering of those statistics. You are also expected to draw on socio-cultural, demographic, and economic information about the population being studied, about previous studies in which that population was involved, and about the conclusions drawn from those studies.

I could go on like this for a while, but I think you probably get the picture.

As I discussed in my last post, some of the sample essays posted by the College Board show a default position commonly adopted by many students who aren’t fully sure how to navigate the type of analysis the new SAT essay requires – something I called “praising the author.” Because the SAT is such an important test, they assume that any author whose work appears on it must be a pretty big. As a result, they figure that they can score some easy points by cranking up the flattery. Thus, authors are described as “brilliant” and “passionate” and “renowned,” even if they are none of those things.

As a result, the entire point of the assignment is lost. Ideally, the goal of close reading is to understand how an author’s argument works as precisely as possible in order to formulate a cogent and well-reasoned response. The goal is to comprehend, not to judge or praise. Otherwise, the writer risks setting up straw men and arguing in relation to positions that they author does not actually take.

The sample essay scoring, however, implies something different and potentially quite problematic. When students are rewarded for offering up unfounded praise and judgments, they can easily acquire the illusion that they are genuinely qualified to evaluate professional writers and scholars, even if their own composition skills are at best middling and they lack any substantial knowledge about a subject. As a result, they can end up confused about what academic writing entails, and about what is and is not appropriate/conventional (which again brings us back to They Say/I Say).

These are not theoretical concerns for me; I have actually tutored college students who used these techniques in their writing.

My guess is that a fair number of colleges will recognize just how problematic an assignment the new essay is and deem it optional. But that in turn creates an even larger problem. Colleges cannot very well go essay-optional on the SAT and not the ACT. So what will happen, I suspect, is that many colleges that currently require the ACT with Writing will drop that requirement as well – and that means highly selective colleges will be considering applications without a single example of a student’s authentic, unedited writing. Bill Fitzsimmons at Harvard came out so early and so strongly in favor of the SAT redesign that it would likely be too much of an embarrassment to renege later, and Princeton, Yale, and Stanford will presumably continue to go along with whatever Harvard does. Aside from those four schools, however, all bets are probably off.

If that shift does in fact occur, then no longer will schools be able to flag applicants whose standardized-test essays are strikingly different from their personal essays. There will be even less of a way to tell what is the result of a stubborn 17 year-old locking herself in her room and refusing to show her essays to anyone, and what is the work of a parent or an English teacher… or a $500/hr. consultant.

Writing the new SAT writing section (slog, slog, slog)

Writing the new SAT writing section (slog, slog, slog)

So I’m in the middle of rewriting the workbook to The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar. After the finishing the new SAT grammar and reading books, I somehow thought that this one would be easier to manage. Annoying, yes, but straightforward, mechanical, and requiring nowhere near the same intensity of focus that the grammar and reading books required. Besides, I no longer have 800 pages worth of revisions hanging over me — that alone makes things easier. 

However, having managed to get about halfway through, I have to say that I’ve never had so much trouble concentrating on what by this point should be a fairly rote exercise. Even writing three or four questions a day feels like pulling teeth. (So of course I’m procrastinating by posting here.) 

In part, this is because I have nothing to build on. With the other two book, I was revising and/or incorporating material I’d already written elsewhere; this one I have to do from scratch. I’m also just plain sick and tired of rewriting material that I already poured so much into the first time around. 

The problem goes beyond that, though. 

I’ve recently come to realize is that the tests I’ve written in the past were comparatively easy to construct because the test they were based on were themselves well-written. Sure, the current workbook was a drag (and don’t even get me started on the trauma of having Word spontaneously decide to create multiple pages 45s — I still flinch whenever I see that number), but writing for the new SAT has made me realize just how much I took for granted. I’ve never actually had to mimic a poorly written test.

Although focusing on The Skills That Matter Most sounds like a lovely idea in principle (who would want students tested on skills that don’t matter?), it’s a little less lovely in practice — or at least in the sort of practice that the writers of the new test have cooked up.

As I’ve written about before, one of the most salient features of the new test is that the majority of the questions focus primarily on a “core” group of skills or topics, with a much smaller number of questions testing a much wider range of topics. The major problem with this setup is that students who are aiming for high scores will need to spend a significant amount of time studying topics that stand a relatively small chance of actually appearing on the test.

To use the type of rhetoric normally applied to SAT vocabulary, students will now be required to devote lots of time “memorizing obscure rules that they are unlikely to ever be tested on.”

I knew this in theory before, but I didn’t fully realize how it would play out on a practical level until I started writing full-length sections.

As has been extensively remarked upon by now, the new SAT multiple choice writing section is essentially a cheap ripoff of the ACT English section — kind of like a fake designer handbag. At first glance, it seems pretty much the same, but when you start to look more closely, you can see that the quality just isn’t as good. At some level, I get the sense that even the people writing the test think it’s bullshit. There’s a carelessness to it that I’ve never felt on another exam. (Cat portraits? Seriously?)

Another big issue involves length. Given the fact that all of the reading is now lumped together in a single, seemingly interminable 65-minute section (nearly twice as long as the ACT reading action) and the writing section will immediately follow the reading section, it is understandable that the writing section would be made somewhat shorter. (As a side note, having to do two verbal sections consecutively is going to be a major turnoff for all but the strongest readers). The problem is that with only 44 questions, 12 of which must involve inserting/deleting information and another 1-3 of which must involves graphics of some sort, there simply isn’t room to test the full range of concepts. As a result, there’s a constant tradeoff: some concepts that I would argue are extraordinarily important — comma splices, for example, or verb tense — are given very short shrift.

Furthermore, with room for only one or two questions in a given category per test, there’s very little way to test concepts at various levels of difficulty. To take just one example, the current SAT writing section focuses heavily on subject-verb agreement, with at least three and as many as five questions of varying difficulty levels appearing throughout the test. Most of these questions test that concept in fairly predictable ways: students can be reasonably confident, for example, that they will encounter sentences that place non-essential clauses and prepositional phrases between subjects and verbs, as well as sentences with compound subjects (two singular nouns connected by “and”). Not coincidentally, these are the structures that students are most likely to employ in their own writing. Because of the frequency with which these structures are tested, students have very good reason to spend time mastering them.

Based on the material released by the College Board, however, the new test appears to test subject-verb agreement no more than two times per test, and sometimes not at all. Furthermore, there is no way to tell what forms those questions will take when they do appear: they could be  as pedestrian as subject-prepositional-phrase verb, or they could be as out-there as “that/whether/what” as subjects — a construction that few people except professional writers (or pretentious Harvard Crimson reporters) use.

But, you say, isn’t that a good thing? Won’t that make the test harder to “beat?” Well, yes, it will make the test less predictable, but predictability is not always a negative. Here’s the thing: the basics of subject-verb agreement are really, really important. Even if a student struggles with some of the more complex variations, they should at least understand how to avoid the most common errors involving it by the end of high school.

Now, given that these common constructions may or may not be tested, students will have far less incentive to study them to the point of mastery. The fact that something is straightforward to learn does not mean that it is isn’t important, or that it shouldn’t be tested. A test that truly focused on “the skills that mattered most,” or one that genuinely gave students a clear blueprint of what to study, simply would not operate this way. 

The ACT English test, in contrast, has 75 questions — that’s plenty of room to test a much fuller range of topics in various ways, from a variety of standpoints, and with varying degrees of difficulty. There are numerous rhetoric questions, but they feel far more balanced with the grammar questions. The writers of that test clearly understand that both are important. Looking back, when I’ve written mock ACT English section, I’ve never felt as if I had to pick and choose; there always seemed to be ample opportunity to include all of the question types I wanted to include. The same for creating mock SAT Writing tests: there was plenty of room to incorporate everything, and I never felt as if I was having to make constant judgment calls about what to test.

Now, though, I find myself writing and rewriting, shifting things around, trying to figure out what’s important enough to include. Decisions that seem like they should be simple and straightforward are instead tedious and drawn-out. The problem is certainly compounded by test-writing fatigue, and by my tendency toward perfectionism, but still, it seems like this shouldn’t be so hard. 

Furthermore, trying to capture the ACT’s earnest, down-home, politically correct hokeyness may be an eye-rolling experience, but at least it’s never made me feel like a shill for the tech industry.

The College Board’s prevailing philosophy seems to be that making students read vapid passages that basically scream “LOOK, WE’RE BEING RELEVANT!” and that present tired clichés about technology and the new economy, with an occasional bone tossed condescendingly to the humanities just so no one can accuse them of being total Philistines (look, it’s ok to take some philosophy course because they can help you make money!), will somehow make students “college and career ready.”

To be perfectly blunt, that is one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever encountered. Only people who live in an echo chamber completely divorced from reality could buy into — or think that students would buy into — something so patently condescending.

It’s also such a blatantly desperate ploy to recapture market share that it comes off as more than a little pathetic. (Not that I’m feeling sorry for anyone — you ruin the test, you suffer the consequences). You can just picture the strategy sessions at which it was decided that “Relevant!” would be the official buzzword of the redesigned SAT, to be repeated ad nauseum lest anyone continue to think that the good people at the College Board were somehow out of touch. 

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way of creating accurate materials that don’t reflect this particular ideological bent. In order to resolve this moral quandary and assuage my conscience, I’m thinking that I may need to put a disclaimer in the book.

Notice: the views expressed this work are intended to represent those held by the technology-happy testing companies and education “reformers” responsible for the installation of Bill Gates’s lackey as the head of the College Board and the redesign of the SAT. In no way should they be taken to reflect my personal opinions. 

I’m only half-kidding.