SAT Reading – Looking for Key Information in Science Passages

By James Rodkey

(Published on 21 May 2021)

The SAT Reading Test consists of five passages, three of which are texts from the sciences – one social science (with data interpretation) and two natural science (one with data interpretation, one without). While the topics covered in these passages can vary considerably, the structure of them is fairly predictable; these passages tend to be research summaries.

As such, these passages often have many elements in common, all of which are important to note and understand while reading. These research summary passages generally include the following elements:

  • A research question. What is the scientific question the researchers set out to answer?
  • Experiment(s). These texts will describe at least one experiment that was designed to answer the research question.
  • Results. The findings of the experiments will be included after the descriptions of them.
  • Discussion/Reaction. These passages usually include commentary or analysis, often by a researcher at a different institution who was not involved in the study, to give context to the findings.

It’s important to anticipate these elements in science passages in order to identify them more easily. To demonstrate how these appear in science texts, consider the following passage from SAT practice test #6 (produced by the College Board and available for free via Khan Academy).

The bulleted items above all appear in this passage—the text is highlighted to show where this information occurs in this particular text.

Texas gourd vines unfurl their large, flared blossoms in the dim hours before sunrise. Until they close at noon, their yellow petals and mild, squashy aroma attract bees that gather their nectar and shuttle pollen from flower to flower. But “when you advertise [to pollinators], you advertise in an open communication network,” says chemical ecologist Ian Baldwin of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany. “You attract not just the good guys, but you also attract the bad guys.” For a Texas gourd plant, striped cucumber beetles are among the very bad guys. They chew up pollen and petals, defecate in the flowers and transmit the dreaded bacterial wilt disease, an infection that can reduce an entire plant to a heap of collapsed tissue in mere days.

In one recent study, Nina Theis and Lynn Adler took on the specific problem of the Texas gourd—how to attract enough pollinators but not too many beetles. The Texas gourd vine’s main pollinators are honey bees and specialized squash bees, which respond to its floral scent. The aroma includes 10 compounds, but the most abundant—and the only one that lures squash bees into traps—is 1,4 dimethoxybenzene.

Intuition suggests that more of that aroma should be even more appealing to bees. “We have this assumption that a really fragrant flower is going to attract a lot of pollinators,” says Theis, a chemical ecologist at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts. But, she adds, that idea hasn’t really been tested—and extra scent could well call in more beetles, too. To find out, she and Adler planted 168 Texas gourd vines in an Iowa field and, throughout the August flowering season, made half of the plants more fragrant by tucking dimethoxybenzene-treated swabs deep inside their flowers. Each treated flower emitted about 45 times more fragrance than a normal one; the other half of the plants got swabs without fragrance.

The researchers also wanted to know whether extra beetles would impose a double cost by both damaging flowers and deterring bees, which might not bother to visit (and pollinate) a flower laden with other insects and their feces. So every half hour throughout the experiments, the team plucked all the beetles off of half the fragrance-enhanced flowers and half the control flowers, allowing bees to respond to the blossoms with and without interference by beetles.

Finally, they pollinated by hand half of the female flowers in each of the four combinations of fragrance and beetles. Hand-pollinated flowers should develop into fruits with the maximum number of seeds, providing a benchmark to see whether the fragrance-related activities of the bees and beetles resulted in reduced pollination.

“It was very labor-intensive,” says Theis. “We would be out there at four in the morning, three in the morning, to try and set up before these flowers open.” As soon as they did, the team spent the next several hours walking from flower to flower, observing each for two-minute intervals and “writing down everything we saw.”

What they say was double the normal number of beetles on the fragrance-enhanced blossoms. Pollinators, to their surprise, did not prefer the highly scented flowers. Squash bees were indifferent, and honey bees visited enhanced flowers less often than normal ones. Theis thinks the bees were repelled not by the fragrance itself, but by the abundance of beetles: The data showed that the more beetles on a flower, the less likely a honey bee was to visit it.

That added up to less reproduction for fragrance-enhanced flowers. Gourds that developed from these blossoms weighed 9 percent less and had, on average, 20 fewer seeds than those from normal flowers. Hand pollination didn’t rescue the seed set, indicating that beetles damaged the flowers directly—regardless of whether they also repelled pollinators. (Hand pollination did rescue the fruit weight, a hard-to-interpret result that suggests that lost bee visits did somehow harm fruit development.)

The new results provide a reason that Texas gourd plants never evolved to produce a stronger scent: “If you really ramp up the odor, you don’t get more pollinators, but you can really get ripped apart by your enemies,” says Rob Raguso, a chemical ecologist at Cornell University who was not involved in the Texas gourd study.

The research question is highlighted in green, the experiment in blue, the results in red, and the discussion/reaction in yellow.

When reading science passages on the SAT, look for these key elements and write them down in the test booklet, either by underlining the text or jotting down notes in the margins. By anticipating these key elements and having them clearly in mind while reading, you can answer questions more quickly and accurately and find relevant parts of the text more efficiently. Since three of the five passages on the Reading Test are likely to adhere to this format, this approach can be highly beneficial to all test takers.

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