A sophisticated college-level vocabulary is so last century, at least as far as the SAT, ACT, and possibly colleges themselves are concerned. The priority for today’s academics and knowledge workers is graphical literacy. ACT was actually ahead of the curve on this one with the data-rich Science Test, but College Board only got the memo in the last decade. The 2015 revision of the SAT Reading section jettisoned the last of the discrete vocabulary questions in part to make room for a new and unfamiliar–at least to the SAT–addition: passage-based graphs.
The Reading section of the current SAT presents 52 questions across 5 passages covering a wide range of topics. Test takers can expect 3 of those passages to present natural and social science topics, and these passages can include a total of 3-4 graphs. Usually each passage will hold 2 graphs but sometimes a single one appears. The most common SAT Reading graph types to contend with are line graphs and scatter plots, but tables and bar charts also occur with some frequency.
The inclusion of data presentations on the SAT may have seemed a response to the already graph heavy ACT, but that “if you can’t beat them, join them” ethos works both ways. ACT just recently announced that graphs will now appear on its Reading section as well. For the next year, we can anticipate–though probably not expect for certain–that a single ACT Reading passage will be accompanied by one or more graphs, figures, or tables.
While the appearance of quantitative graphs and tables on what is supposed to be a reading section may seem incongruous to some test takers, each data presentation serves the same purpose as every other paragraph in a test passage, which is to support the main idea or thesis. Thus, students can expect that these visual and quantitative elements will contain information relevant to the reading task. Approaching the graphs in that context can make answering what are often challenging questions much easier.
What kind of reading questions ask about graphs?
Most questions on SAT & ACT Reading refer, in one way or another, to the main idea of a passage or paragraph. Expect questions that ask about which claim or statement is supported by data in a graph or figure. Always consider a graph in light of what the author wrote the entire passage to say.
Sometimes the test makers ask students to focus not on the big picture but the little details. Graph questions on the reading sections often challenge the ability to find specific information in the data or determine which answer choice matches the data. Read all the elements of a graph carefully, and be prepared to make connections between numbers and text.
3. VARIABLE RELATIONSHIPS
The questions that most reflect the graphical literacy priorities of ACT Science focus on the data in and of itself rather than in the context of the passage. Test takers may need to compare the relationships between different data sets or draw conclusions about interactions or models. In these instances, try to express in simple terms the implications of the data.
Most test takers have always been challenged by reading on the SAT and ACT. While the inclusion of graphical elements that teens tend to feel comfortable with to long-form passages–which most teens definitely don’t feel comfortable with–would seem to be a welcome addition, many test takers actually find graph questions quite difficult. Never forget that every question on either Reading section is meant to test fundamentals of reading. Approach these elements in that spirit, and you’ll be much more likely to pick up the points.