As challenging as students expect the SAT & ACT to be, the test makers somehow manage to exceed expectations of difficulty. How else can we explain the phenomenal rarity of perfect Reading scores on the tests, even though every test taker (presumably) can read. What makes test reading so tough? Obviously, the timed nature of the exams requires a pace some readers find excessively brisk. The wide range of topics from fiction to natural science to humanities guarantees that every teen will find at least one passage too opaque or boring. Worst of all are the passages drawn from earlier centuries when an extensive command of English vocabulary and labyrinthine sentence structure were in vogue.
That said, the secret struggle teens experience on these sections of the SAT & ACT lies in the marked difference between test reading and school reading. By high school, students have spent years learning to analyze literature the way detectives work cases: delving deeply for the slightest clues to author intent. Reading as a means of understanding the world’s great written works enriches the soul as surely as it sharpens the mind. Scholarly analysis does not, however, prepare anyone for reading on the SAT or ACT.
To meet essential thresholds of validity, reliability, and fairness, standardized testing requires clear, indisputable answers to exam questions. These standards of objectivity cannot suffer the subjective nature of literary analysis, in which multiple perspectives may be considered equally valid. Thus, test takers go awry when they read deeply and sift for clues the way they learned in English class. For maximum success, skip the school style and read shallow and wide.
To read shallow means to accept the author’s intent at face value. If a thorough perusal of a passage reveals a main point with sufficient evidence to support it, trust that thesis. SAT & ACT reading revolves around the primacy of the main point of a passage, at least as far as nonfiction is concerned. You won’t find a super-secret point hidden beneath the obvious one; the surface text provides all the information needed to answer questions correctly.
To read wide highlights how the test makers hide correct answers in plain sight. Every correct answer on the Reading sections must be supported by evidence from the relevant passage. Test takers often miss the supporting text because of some simple misdirection. Test questions often cite line numbers (e.g. in lines 22-24) in questions but hide the real evidence for the question outside the referenced lines. Smart test takers know to read as far before and after line references to find their answers.
Reading on the SAT & ACT is designed to challenge a basket of critical reading skills. Don’t make a tough test even tougher by reading the wrong way. Read shallow and wide for success on the SAT & ACT.