2015 SAT reading and writing scores tank

From Bloomberg: 

Students in the high school class of 2015 turned in the lowest critical reading score on the SAT college entrance exam in more than 40 years, with all three sections declining from the previous year. Meanwhile, ACT Inc. reported that nearly 60 percent of all 2015 high school graduates took the ACT, up from 49 percent in 2011. (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-03/students-bombed-the-sat-this-year-in-four-charts)



Oh well, good thing the new SAT is right around the corner. Without all those obscure words and irrelevant passages, scores should start to artificially increase stabilize. 

Hard questions, easy answers (or: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras)

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” If you’re not familiar with the expression, it means that when searching for an explanation, you should always consider obvious possibilities before thinking about more unlikely options. Whenever I tutor the Writing section of the SAT, I find myself uttering these words with inordinate frequency.

I’ve worked with a number of students trying to pull their Writing scores from the mid-600s to the 750+ range. Most have done well on practice tests but then unexpectedly seen their scores drop on the actual test. Unsurprisingly, they were puzzled by their performance on the real thing; they just couldn’t figure out what they had done differently. And at first glance, they did seem to know what they were doing. When I worked very carefully through a section with them, however, some cracks inevitably emerged. Not a lot, mind you, but just enough to consistently pull them down. They would be sailing along, identifying errors like there was no tomorrow, when all of the sudden they would hit a question whose error (if any) they simply could not identify.

When that happened, they would stop and read the sentence again. And when they couldn’t hear anything wrong, they would read the sentence again, slowly, trying to hear whether something was wrong (mistake #1). Then, if they really didn’t want to choose “No error” but weren’t sure whether something was truly wrong, they would start searching for an explanation, usually a somewhat convoluted one, for why a perfectly acceptable construction was ambiguous or awkward or otherwise wrong (mistake #2). Almost always they did so when the actual answers — answers based on concepts they understood perfectly well — were staring them right in the face.

One of things that it’s easy to forget — or, in the case of many natural high-scorers who haven’t needed to study the framework of the test, to never realize — is that “hard” questions are not necessarily hard because they test hard concepts. Most often, they are hard either because they test (relatively) simple concepts in hard ways or because they combine concepts in unexpected ways.

Hard questions can — and often do — have “easy” answers. That does not mean that the answer is the option that sounds weird (that’s the distractor answer). It does, however, mean that the answer is likely to be an extremely simple word like “is” or “are” or “it.” It also means that the answer probably involves an extremely common error, like subject verb agreement or pronoun agreement, not some obscure rule you’ve never heard of.

The challenge is figuring out which concept is being tested, not understanding the concept itself. So when people who can usually hear the error come across a question whose answer they don’t instantly hear, their instinctive reaction is to look for something outlandish to be wrong with it, not to think systematically about what the most common errors are and check to see whether the question contains them. In others words, they hear hoofbeats and imagine that a herd of zebras is about to come racing around the corner.

For example, consider the following question, which a very high-scoring student of mine recently missed:


(A) Thanks to the strength (B) of the bonds between (C) its

constituent carbon atoms, a diamond has exceptional

physical properties (D) that makes it useful in a wide

variety of industrial applications. (E) No error


If you spotted the error immediately, great, but bear with me for illustrative purposes. The sentence itself is rather challenging: it discusses a topic (chemistry) that many students are unlikely to have unpleasant associations with, and it also contains the word “constituent,” which many weaker readers will have difficulty decoding, and whose meaning many slightly stronger readers will not know or be able to figure out. So right there we have two big stumbling blocks likely to distract from the grammar of the sentence. Many test-takers are also likely to think that “Thanks to” sounds too casual and would be considered wrong on a serious test like the SAT. Many other test-takers are likely to just not hear any error.

In that case, the most effective approach is to consider the structure of the test. The most common error is subject-verb agreement, and when in doubt, it’s the error you should always check first. There is exactly one underlined verb in the sentence: “makes.” It singular (remember: singular verbs ends in “-s”), which means that it’s subject must be singular as well.

But what is the subject? “Physical properties,” which is plural, so there’s a disagreement. The answer is therefore (D). The sentence should read “…physical properties that make it useful.”

The moral of the story is that if you don’t spot an error immediately, whatever you do, don’t fall into the loop of endlessly rereading the sentence and trying to figure out whether something sounds funny. Instead, check systematically for the top five or so errors: subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement (check “it” and “they”), verb tense (pay attention to dates and “time” words), adjectives vs. adverbs (easy to overlook), and, if you’re at the end of a section, faulty comparisons.

If all of those things check out, the sentence is probably fine.

The Sparknotes problem

When I start working with a new student, there are a few questions I normally ask: What foreign language do you take and what have you covered? What are you currently reading in English class, and what have you read in the past year or two? Do you read books/newspapers on a regular basis?

You see, my mistake has been to assume that even if students don’t read on their own, they’ve actually been doing the reading that they’re assigned in English class.

Increasingly, however, I realize that my question should really be this: how often do you actually do the assigned reading for English class, and how often do you just go on Sparknotes.com and read the summaries?

Or perhaps more cynically: do you ever do the assigned reading for English class, or do you just go on Sparknotes and read the summaries?

The first time a student told me she’d gotten an A- in English class without ever reading any of the books (at a fairly rigorous $40K+/year Manhattan private school, incidentally), I was mildly taken aback. The second time it happened, a bit less so. Now, I’ve (sadly) come to expect it, even from straight-A students.

A friend of mine who teaches AP French now spends most of her prep time trying to find readings that can’t be looked up in translation online. I think that pretty much says it all.

Aside from the obvious question of what on earth could actually be going on in English class that would allow students to get perfect grades without doing any of the reading (lots of extra credit???), this is starting to pose some real problems for standardized testing.

Now to be fair, I actually think that Sparknotes is a pretty good resource. I find the summaries and analyses to be quite accurate and thorough, and they offer very solid guidance for someone who needs to understand basic themes, characters, etc.

It is not, however, a substitute for reading actual books.

In terms of school, that might not be apparent. If students can glance through Sparknotes, ace the quiz the next day, and bullshit a few comments to ensure that all-important participation grade, there’s no apparent drawback to that method. The fact that they’re not actually learning anything would seem to be irrelevant.

The problem only shows up when they hit the SAT or the ACT. Suddenly, they’re being asked to read texts much more challenging than, well Sparknotes, and there’s no way to whip out an ipad look up the answer. Having minimal experience with unfamiliar vocabulary, for example, they don’t know how to use context clues to figure out what they don’t know. The experience of struggling with a text is entirely foreign to them, and the feeling of winning its meaning even more so. (Why bother if it isn’t easy, right? And who would, like, write in that weird way anyhow?)

What concerns me, however, are the truly head-spinning conversations I’ve had with parents who in one sentence openly admit that their child goes on Sparknotes for every English assignment, and in the next express their utter bewilderment over why that child (a straight-A student) just cannot seem to raise his score, no matter how many practice tests he takes.

Sometimes, I’m really at a loss for words.

General vs. specific in Critical Reading answer choices

If you’re someone who consistently gets down to two answers but doesn’t know how to choose between them, this post is for you. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of you out there; the test is designed to force you into making subtle distinctions between answer choices, so what you’re struggling with is precisely what the test is designed to do. If nothing else, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.

When I watch students in this category work through a question on their own however, I almost invariably witness the following sequence of events:

-Student reads question.

-Student quickly rereads the necessary section of the passage.

-Student looks at answer choices.

-Student quickly and decisively crosses off three answers that are clearly wrong.

-Student stares at the remaining two answer choices.

-Student stares at the remaining two answer choices some more.

-Student’s eyes begin to take on a “deer in the headlights” cast.

-Student turns to me and croaks, “Help…?”

The reaction is entirely understandable. To be sure, there are plenty of answer choices that do seem very similar — so similar, in fact, that the difference(s) between them might not be obvious immediately, or even after you’ve read each answer through a few times. The danger, however, is to mistake perception for reality — that is, to assume that because you don’t happen to see any differences between the answers, such differences do not exist.

In reality, the more effective procedure is to turn the problem back on yourself and ask what distinction you personally have not yet noticed. SAT questions jump through a lot of hoops to make it onto the test — every couple of years, a question or two that’s a bit more ambiguous than usual might make it on, but that usually doesn’t happen. When dealing with a standardized test, it’s best to work from general rules and only consider the exceptions if the rules clearly don’t apply. So your assumption should be that the College Board probably didn’t mess up, and that there’s a good — if subtle — reason that the right answer is right and the wrong answer is wrong. In short, it’s not the test, it’s you.

If you can approach pairs of similar-seeming answers by looking for specific types of differences, however, your job becomes much simpler. Instead of having to worry about every word of each option, you only have to worry about a single aspect. And one common difference is that of scope — that is, how general or specific an answer choice is. Remember that correct answers tend to be relatively limited in scope, even if they’re phrased vaguely. They frequently restate the topic of the passage, either by name or in a more general way, e.g. Shakespeare becomes “a playwright”. That is only logical because SAT passages themselves tend to be relatively limited in scope: they are about specific topics, events, ideas, and individuals, not about all of human history or the meaning of life.

One very simple “trick” when you are deciding between two answer choices is to momentarily ignore the answers and simply restate the topic of the passage. (Granted, this strategy only works if you can correctly identify it, but let’s assume you can handle that part.) If one answer choice restates that topic — either explicitly or more generally — and the other goes “out of bounds,” the former will be correct.

For example, consider this pair of answers from a Passage 1/Passage 2 question. It’s fairly easy to determine from the passages that the correct answer must indicate a positive relationship, but that still leaves two possibilities.

How would the “many scholars” (line 70, passage 2) most likely react to the search or the “grand theory” (line 1, Passage 1)?

(A) With sympathy, because these scholars too are attempting to understand the overarching meaning of Paleolithic art

(D) With delight, because these scholars are convinced that Paleolithic art provides the key to comprehending natural history

They seem pretty similar, right?

Now consider the first sentence of the blurb above the passages:

The passages below discuss a type of Paleolithic art, cave paintings created between approximately 33,000 and 9000 B.C.E.

In this case, the test tells you what the topic of the passages is; don’t have to figure anything out. And since (A) refers only to “Paleolithic art” (specific), while (D) mentions “natural history” (way too broad), the former is correct. (As a side note, the extreme word “convinced” in (D) is also a hint that it’s probably wrong.) Out of two passages and 84 lines, that’s the only information you actually need.

Read (around) the lines you’re given before you read somewhere else

A couple of times recently, I’ve been working with students when the following scenario has occurred:

-Student encounters question asking them to determine the purpose of the information in, say, lines 47-53.

-Student glances briefly at lines 47-53, can’t figure out the answer immediately, and then proceeds to jump to the beginning of the passage and reads somewhere around line 20. Or, worse yet, ignores lines 47-53 entirely and starts reading around line 20. Or keeps going until s/he hits line 65.

Student: Is it (C)?

Me: Ok, why do you think that?

Student: Well, in line 20 the author is kind of like talking about-

Me: Whoa, wait a second. Why are you looking over there? The question asked you to look at lines 47-53.

Student: But isn’t the guy like basically saying the same thing here?

Me: Number one, no he actually isn’t, and number two, what on earth possessed you to look in line 20 when the question told you exactly where to look?

Student looks mystified.

Me: I know I told you to look at the end of the first paragraph for number 14, but that was a primary purpose question. It was asking you for the big picture, and the author is usually going to give you that in the intro (that’s the point of an introduction!) But if it’s not a “big picture” question, you need to stick to the lines they give you because the question isn’t asking you to consider the context of the whole passage, just that immediate area of the passage. You might be able to get the answer by knowing the point, but it also might have nothing to do with the point. So you have to check those lines out first and work from there.

This is inevitably one of those I-don’t know-whether-I-should-laugh-or-bang-my-head-against-the-wall moments. These are smart kids, yet these conversations drive home to me just how much mental gymnastics the SAT requires. Think about the main point. Now don’t think about the main point. Think about where key information in the passage is likely to be located. No, only worry about the lines you’re given in the question. Think about the “point of view” in context of the passage. No, think about it in isolation. There’s so much flipping back and forth that it’s a wonder anyone can keep it straight.

But let me try to make it simple. Unless you’re dealing with a “big picture” question (main point, primary purpose, one that doesn’t include a line reference), start by assuming that the answer is located somewhere in the close vicinity of the lines you’re given. That doesn’t mean the answer will always be in the lines referenced; it might be a little bit before or a little bit after. But it’ll almost certainly be close by. And even though it might true that information from the other end of the passage might be related, you won’t need to look all the way over there to find the answer.

So if you find yourself looking all over the passage when the question tells you (approximately) where the information you need to answer the question is located, know that you’re probably costing yourself a lot of time. And even if you’re getting the questions right, you’re probably making the process a lot more complicated that it needs to be.