Avoiding Trap Answers in SAT Reading

By James Rodkey

(ACT, SAT, SSAT, English Builder, ESOL, and Latin tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Test failure“I narrowed it down to A and C, but then I couldn’t decide between those two answers, so I just picked C.”

My students say this sort of thing to me often when we’re correcting SAT Reading passages – they can eliminate at least one answer as clearly being incorrect, maybe two, but they’re left with multiple answers that seem like they could be correct. Of course the SAT is a multiple-choice test – there can only be one correct answer to every question, and it should be demonstrable, not a matter of opinion or intuition.

Read more from James in his previous blog “Changes in vocabulary between the old SAT and new SAT format”

If you find yourself stuck between two answers that both seem correct, the problem is either that you’ve slightly misunderstood some core aspect of the meaning of the text or, more likely, that you’re simply not looking closely enough at the answer choices. Some answer choices for SAT Reading questions are very long and contain multiple different statements. As I’m fond of reminding my students, if any part of the answer is wrong, the whole answer is wrong. That means that you should be quick to eliminate answers if any part of them doesn’t accurately describe the text.

Let’s take a look at an example. This is a Social Science passage from a real SAT released by the College Board. (The whole exam is available for free download through Khan Academy here.)

SAT Reading

The first question following this passage asks:

The passage primarily serves to

A) discuss recent findings concerning scientific studies and dispute a widely held belief about the publication of social science research.

B) explain a common practice in the reporting of research studies and summarize a study that provides support for a change to that practice.

C) describe the shortcomings in current approaches to medical trials and recommend the implementation of a government database.

D) provide context as a part of a call for stricter controls on social science research and challenge publishers to alter their mindsets.

Let’s examine each part of each answer and see which one is correct. Only one of these answers will not contain at least one small error or inconsistency with the text of the passage.

The easiest answer to eliminate here is C. This answer choice mentions “medical trials,” which does appear in the first paragraph, but the rest of the passage is about the social and behavioral sciences, as the text clarifies after mentioning medical trials. It also mentions a “government database.” While the last paragraph does propose a “registry,” there’s no indication that this should be maintained by the government. Both elements of this answer choice are incorrect, so it’s definitely not the best choice.

The next one we can eliminate is A. Although it might seem slightly tempting at first, a close inspection will reveal some obvious problems. The first part of the answer, “discuss recent findings concerning scientific studies,” isn’t necessarily wrong. The second part, however, is not true. It says that the passage primarily serves to “dispute a widely held belief about the publication of social science research.” You should ask yourself, “if this is true, what is the widely held belief?” This passage talks about a tendency in the social sciences for researchers not to publish null results, but there is no “widely held belief” explicitly mentioned in this passage.

That leaves us with answer choices B and D, which both may seem to be correct. Let’s look at answer choice D first.

Answer choice D has two parts as well: “provide context as a part of a call for stricter controls on social science research” and “challenge publishers to alter their mindsets.” While Malhotra and his team do give several suggestions to fix a problem they perceive in social science research, they never call for “stricter controls” per se. They call for a culture change, a shift in expectations, and a data registry, but none of these suggestions is explicitly aimed at stricter controls on publishers. The second part of the answer choice is slightly dubious as well – Malhotra’s suggestions are directed at researchers, not publishers.

That leaves us with answer choice B, which is the correct answer to this question. We can confirm that both statements in the answer choice are correct. The first part says “explain a common practice in the reporting of research studies,” which this passage does: the “common practice” is the non-reporting of findings when they show null results, or no significant effect. The second part, “summarize a study that provides support for a change to that practice,” is also correct: the “study” summarized is the one by Malhotra and his team, and the “change to that practice” is the suggestion that null results also be published. Both parts of this answer choice can be accurately mapped onto the text, so it’s the best choice.

So, whenever you find yourself in the situation of deciding between two answer choices in SAT Reading, take a close look at each part of each answer. If any part doesn’t accurately describe the text, that answer choice is wrong. Look closely and carefully, and you should be left with just one answer – the correct one.

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