For many people, the tendency to interpret what they read is one of the biggest stumbling blocks they encounter on the SAT. After all, their English teachers have told them for years that reading is about interpreting; it therefore seems natural that the College Board would want them to do the same. It doesn’t.

Among the myriad things that never get explained to most people when they first start studying for the SAT is the fact that Critical Reading is not an English test in the sense they’ve come to understand English in school. As a result, many strong students who have always received high grades in English class are surprised when their Critical Reading scores are barely above average. So if this describes your (or your child’s) situation, please consider the following.

First, on the verbal side, the SAT is not a literature test but rather a vocabulary-based reasoning test. It is above all a test about the construction of arguments and the relationships between them. It is most definitely not a test of someone’s ability to “interpret” (i.e. speculate about meanings not directly suggested in a text), at least in the way that many high school students have been encouraged to do in school. This does not mean that the SAT is inherently a bad test, or that doing well on it is only a question of how much test-prep someone receives. I find that there is a widespread tendency to assume that just because schools don’t teach the skills tested on the SAT, those skills are 1) inapplicable beyond a standardized-testing context, or 2) unteachable. And implicit in that assumption is the notion that if (outstanding) high schools are not teaching a particular set of skills — skills that are only tested on the SAT — then those skills can’t possibly be very important.

I’d like to turn that notion on its head and suggest something that many people will probably find very unpalatable, namely that the skills the SAT tests are far more important than those that many students are learning to do in English class. I’d also like to suggest that there are some very important skills that many high school students need to be taught explicitly in order to master, and that high schools — even very good ones — are routinely failing to teach.

Chief among these skills is the ability to engage with a text word by word, paying close attention to elements such as diction, syntax, and structure in order to fully comprehend the particular idea that an author is attempting to convey — not just glancing over a book (or Sparknotes, for that matter) and getting a vague notion about what an author *might* be saying. Working with this level of precision requires an extraordinarily high level of concentration. It also requires that students temporarily put themselves aside and focus exclusively on someone else’s intentions — not, I gather, something that they are routinely asked to do.

This may sound harsh, but I say it based on the following observation: when I ask a student to tell me what an author thinks about a particular topic (or summarize an idea, or tell me what’s discussed in a particular section of a passage), he or she almost never returns to the passage in order to read carefully to determine the necessary information but rather begins with, “Well, I feel like it’s saying…” And then tells me something well outside the bounds of what’s actually written in the text, without ever actually looking at it.

When I point out that they might want to actually look at what the author wrote, they usually ignore me and keep talking. Even after I tell them multiple times to look back at the passage, they might do no more than glance over a couple of lines and then tell me that either 1) the answer isn’t there, or 2) pull out a couple of random pieces of information not totally related to the question at hand. And I don’t think that it’s a question of laziness; the idea of looking at the passage actually doesn’t seem to occur to them. I get the sense that this sort of sustained, rigorous, objective reading is a completely foreign concept.

This is not about teenagers being teenagers either; the French lycée students I’ve worked with — students who are actually taught in a system that drills this kind of precision mercilessly — have absolutely no problem telling me the function of a paragraph in the context of an argument, or the relationship between the first and second sentences in a paragraph. And while anyone who knows me cannot fail to be aware that I have many problems with the French educational system, this is not one of them. If American students have never been taught to think with this level of rigor, it’s no wonder they can’t see the relationships between SAT questions and answers, and no wonder that they find the right answers to be arbitrary and only attainable through some mysterious process of elimination.

So who’s to blame for this? Teachers at their wits end trying to manage classes of thirty students? School administrators convinced that a laptop for every student and an Internet hookup in every classroom will magically solve every problem? Facebook and other social networking sites for melting teenagers’ minds, ruining their ability to concentrate, and seducing them into spending endless hours online? An educational system so terrified of ruining children’s self-esteem (and incurring parental ire) that it feels compelled to insist that everyone’s opinion is equal and that everything is just a matter of interpretation? I think it’s a confluence of these factors. And as of now, at least, I don’t really have any grand solutions, except to tell my students to go back to the text, put their finger on the damn page, and read. every. single. word.