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ACT and SAT Reading Comprehension Oddities

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Today I want to discuss some of the quirks and peculiarities of the ACT and SAT reading comprehension sections. Many of these come from trying to craft a standardized test that is capable of objectively measuring critical reading. However, critical reading is an inherently subjective process. To get around this apparent contradiction, the designers of the ACT and SAT had to devise a critical reading section that consistently allowed for only a single correct answer. The result is a pair of reading exams that employ an extremely simplified concept of “critical reading.” Every correct answer must be directly supported by something in the text, with no room for interpretation. Likewise, students must be able to answer every question correctly without needing to draw on their own opinions or life experiences.

This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if either exam was upfront about its expectations for highly-literal, directly supported answers. Unfortunately, both the ACT and SAT reading sections employ language that makes the questions sound more subjective than they actually are. Questions routinely include words such “implied” or “inferred” that suggest a sense of ambiguity to many students. However, all questions, regardless of their exact phrasing, are essentially asking the same thing: Which of the following is true (or untrue) based on the information in the passage? Any ambiguous sounding-language in a question is simply intended to trick students into thinking that the question is less black-and-white than it actually is.

The answer choices employ their own set of tactics to try to confuse and mislead students. The difference between an answer being correct and incorrect can be as tiny as a single word. Some answer choices are designed to sound like something the author of a passage would write but are not actually found in the passage itself. Other choices do present a statement that is supported by the passage but switch key characters and/or concepts from the passage around. Answer choices that are the exact opposite of the correct answer routinely show up as well. Occasionally the exams will throw in a possible answer that is either completely irrelevant or entirely nonsensical.

Other quirks that I’ve noticed include the way that the ACT and SAT treat the concept of the “main idea” of a passage. The correct answer will simply be the one that the passage mentions the most, meaning that students don’t even really have to think about the core concept of a passage in order to do well on it. For questions that involve defining words, the correct answer must have a meaning that corresponds exactly with something found in the passage. If a question asks for the mood of a character and the correct answer is “angry,” the passage will clearly demonstrate this in some way. Conversely, words such “sad” and “upset,” despite being associated with being angry, do not literally mean the same thing. Thus, they would be incorrect answer choices in the literal-minded world of ACT and SAT critical reading.

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