Most influential standardized exams assess comprehensive reading and reasoning skills. Even the MCAT, the entrance exam for medical school, evaluates Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills along with the expected biology, chemistry, and physics. The excerpts of text most exams use to evaluate reading, grammar, and even science reasoning skills are typically called passages. Yet, after decades of helping students master these tests, I’ve never seen a good explanation of what a passage actually is.
Technically, a passage is simply a portion or section of a written work, either fiction or non-fiction. Some hold that a passage can be as short as a sentence, but most consist of at least one paragraph and usually several. One iteration of SAT Passage-based Reading included both Short Passages of 1-2 paragraphs and Long Passages of 4-9 paragraphs. These days, most test passages, at least at the high school level, come in at what is amorphously described as “medium length.”
Some passages incorporate excerpts from multiple sources and may lack a central idea of their own. However, in most instances and on most test sections, a passage presents a carefully curated excerpt that can be perceived as containing some sort of greater meaning. This greater meaning might present as a thesis or claim in a non-fiction passage or a contained story in a fiction piece.
In fact, all reading passages on standardized exams revolve around a central idea that serves as a foundation from which to test a battery of core reading skills. And from that essential aspect, I draw a more figurative definition of passage in the tradition of the great explorers. Passage in the physical sense involves the action or process of passing from one place, condition, or stage to another. Isn’t this what occurs in a mental sense as well within the structure of a typical test passage?
From its introduction through the body to the inevitable conclusion, a well-written passage carries a willing participant from a state of specific ignorance to one of knowledge. At first, you do not know whatever it is the author wrote the passage to say about a specific topic, but by the end, if you’ve read closely and carefully, you do. Traversing passages such as these requires active engagement, but the process inevitably leads to a sort of progress… and, on tests, a lot of points!