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Strategies for Paired Passages

When it comes to the SAT or ACT Reading section, one of the biggest challenges for students is the paired passage. Some students call it the dual passage. Others call it the side-by-side. The vast majority of students call it trouble! But using some good, simple strategies can make it much easier to navigate.

What is a “paired passage”?

If you’ve not yet encountered a paired passage, they’re essentially what you might expect. Two short essays, speeches, or stories are featured next to one another, and they have some sort of connection. They may be agreeing on a topic. They could feature pro and con positions on a topic. Or they could be only tangentially connected by a subject addressed in both passages. In any case, one of our jobs is to figure out this connection. But more on that later…

A paired passage on the SAT typically looks something like this.

This particular set of passages comes from a recent test, and it features speeches from Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson. Paired passages don’t always feature historical documents, but when they do, the subject is almost always civil rights or women’s rights issues.

How do I attack a paired passage?

When most students are confronted with a dual passage, they make the mistake of plunging right in and trying to decipher it. As with any reading passage, you must have a plan! And Step 1 of that plan should be to read the “blurb” at the beginning. SAT and ACT reading passages generally give you a bit of information about the passage you’re about to tackle. Always take the time to read what they give you.

In our passage here, the blurb gives us huge (and immensely helpful!) context clues for what we’re about to read. We learn that the author of Passage 1, Paul Robeson, was an actor/singer commenting on remarks he made previously. The blurb also fills us in on the global situation at the time–namely, that the U.S. and then-communist Russia were at odds. Finally, the blurb lets us know that Jackie Robinson, the speaker in Passage 2, was called by the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee to address Robeson’s remarks.

We haven’t even read the first word of the actual passages, and we already know what to expect! We should expect that Passage 1 (Robeson) will be speaking about the Soviet Union and the United States, and that Passage 2 (Robinson) will likely be presenting a different opinion. Any historical context you know from your own studying of the Cold War will likely make this blurb even more poignant and helpful.

Step 2: Divide and Conquer

Ok, so we’ve gotten the blurb down. Now, we’re going to divide the paired passages in half. First, we’ll read Passage 1 as we would any reading passage. Read and annotate, looking for the main idea of the paragraphs, as well as the passage as a whole.

After going through Passage 1, we’ve discovered that Robeson (probably controversially) said that he loved the Soviet Union. In 1949, that was pretty incendiary! He then put the statement in a racial/political context: he loved the Soviets because they fought for freedom for all, including for black men and women. He wanted to love America, but the racial policies and attitudes of America kept him from having the same loyalty to the United States as he felt for Russia.

Now that we’ve gotten that down, our next step will be to answer the questions related to Passage 1.

Questions 11-14 deal with Passage 1 directly, so we’ll hit those first. Once we answer those, we’ll go back and read Passage 2, looking for the main idea, but also looking for how it relates to Passage 1.

We’ll then answer the questions directly related to Passage 2. Our final step will be to answer the last few questions (17-20), since they will compare or contrast the ideas in the two passages.

Let’s Review

So to review the overall plan:

Step 1: Read the “blurb”

Step 2: Read and annotate Passage 1

Step 3: Answer the questions related to Passage 1

Step 4: Read and annotate Passage 2

Step 5: Answer the questions related to Passage 2

Final Step: Finish the questions that relate to both passages

Paired passages can be daunting. But with a little strategy and planning, you can have success!

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What is the SAT QAS?

(And is it something you need?)

Some of the questions I often get during or after the exam prep process are “What is the SAT QAS? And should I order it?” So let’s spend a moment to talk about what the QAS is and why it can be incredibly useful for exam prep students.

A QAS (Question and Answer Service) from the SAT is a fancy term for a copy of the test a student has taken. College Board, the makers of the SAT, release copies of the actual test from March, May, and October every year. (The ACT also releases three copies of the test each year in April, June, and December.)

The QAS, which currently costs an additional $18 to order, gives a student all of the questions and answers from a particular exam. This is different from the SAS (Student Answer Service). The SAS can be obtained for any SAT, but only gives the correct answers, not the questions that go along with them.

The QAS itself is a printed copy of the exam, just as it appeared on test day. Students are able to access both their selected answers and the correct answers online through their College Board account. From there, they can choose individual question numbers to see both the question and their response. Past QAS copies can often be obtained with a quick Google search.

The QAS can be exceptionally useful for students who are planning to take the test again in the future. Debriefing from practice tests is always a good exercise for a student training to take the SAT. Debriefing from an official test can be just as useful. Even if a student is well versed in the tactics of the SAT, seeing differences from one test to another can be enlightening.

If you plan to take the SAT this fall, be sure to sign up for the QAS as well. Going over your results could make the difference when you take the test a second or third time!

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ACT Begins Superscoring

Superscoring! Doesn’t that sound incredibly epic?! You can almost hear a bold-voiced announcer telling you that the ACT is new and improved, “Now with SUPERSCORING!”

But what is superscoring?

In short, superscoring is a way for students to take advantage of multiple ACT efforts by combining their best English, math, reading, and science scores. For example, let’s say a student took the ACT three separate times and received the following scores:

Test #1: English 25, Math 32, Reading 22, Science 28 –> Composite: 27

Test #2: English 30, Math 31, Reading 23, Science 24 –> Composite: 27

Test # 3: English 28, Math 28, Reading 28, Science 25 –> Composite: 27

Not bad, eh? A 27 is a good score, for sure.

But… if we take the superscore of those tests, we’d use the English from Test 2 (30), the Math from Test 1 (32), the Reading from Test 3 (28), and the Science from Test 1 (28). When we add those up and average them, the superscore for the three tests is a 30! That’s a three-point increase! And it can make a huge difference when it comes to the admission process and merit-based scholarships.

So what’s the big deal?

Many colleges have already used superscores themselves. But the ACT’s announcement this week was significant because it means that the ACT will be releasing official superscores for students who have taken more than one test, going back to 2016.

Not only is the addition of superscores a big plus for students, but it also makes the ACT an even more attractive option as students weigh whether to take an ACT or SAT for their college admission process. No less important is the fact that superscores might be an even better predictor of first-year college success than any individual test scores.

auditorium benches chairs class
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So as you wrap up the school year and enter the summer break, use this time to turn your attention to the ACT, and plan to take it at least twice (and maybe even three times!) in the fall. If you do, the next things that will be new and improved will be your chance for admission at the school of your choice and scholarship money to pay for it!

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Summer of Exam Prep

It’s Spring! The sun is beginning to peek out more often. Flowers are out. COVID cases are finally decreasing, and vaccinations are continuing to rise. Before long, the new normal will hopefully start looking a whole lot like actual normal. And for soon-to-be juniors, it’s time to begin thinking about preparing for the fall SAT or ACT. Our strong recommendation is that they make this summer the Summer of Exam Prep.

Many schools and school counselors advise students to plan to take the SAT/ACT during the spring of their junior year. This can work, but there are distinct advantages to prepping over the summer for one of the fall tests.

Summer = Fewer Obligations

First, students generally have more flexible schedules during the summer. Though some families will have vacation outings and other trips, students can usually devote more time to exam prep during the summer. Students who prep during the school year often have to work around sports schedules and other extracurriculars. Students who prep during the summer usually don’t have those sorts of constraints. This makes it easier for students to schedule sessions and even pack an exam prep program into a shorter time period, while still getting the maximum benefit.

Summer = Less Academic Stress

Another benefit of summer prep is that students don’t have to juggle their time and attention between their exam prep and difficult academic work. Junior year is one of the toughest years for students. They generally take some of their toughest AP/dual-credit courses during their junior years. This can make it especially stressful to squeeze in exam prep for one of the spring tests.

Summer = Less Mental Slide

Finally, a great fringe benefit to doing summer exam prep is the prevention of the “summer slide.” One complaint that educators (and some students!) have about summer break is that much of the progress students gained during the school year is lost during the summer. Students usually don’t devote much of the summer to intellectual pursuits, so they are rusty and out of form when they go back to school in the fall. Working through an exam prep program during the summer allows a student to continue flexing their intellectual muscles, which makes the transition back to school that much easier.

Admittedly, working through the finer points of an SAT or ACT might not sound like a thrilling way to spend the summer. But with a team of excellent prep coaches to provide support, summer exam prep can be rewarding in myriad ways!

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ACT Averages Dropped (Again)

2020 continues to be the year of chaos. From COVID-19 to the politicizing of masks to a hotly contested election, upheaval continues to be the norm. It’s no surprise then that the ACT national average has also experienced negativity. For the third year in a row, the national ACT averages dropped. It now stands at 20.6 (out of 36), the lowest national average in 10 years. The ACT’s national average generally hovers around 21, so the downward trend, while concerning, isn’t precipitous. So what does this mean for you and your student?

The more disturbing trend

The larger issue with the declining averages is what that decline truly indicates. The ACT averages have dropped; what does that actually mean? The ACT is, at its core, a college readiness test. The English section tests on the basics of editing, including punctuation, grammar, and structure, all handy skills for term paper and essay writing in high school and college. The math section ensures that a student has gotten the basic skills s/he needs to be successful, and it also tests–as does the rest of the test–a student’s critical thinking skills.

The reading section tests a student’s ability to read through unfamiliar information and quickly process through what’s important. And the science section evaluates a student’s ability to analyze graphical information quickly and find patterns.

Which leads to the bigger problem with the declining ACT scores–they represent a decline in students’ core skills. Students in today’s high schools have more opportunity to specialize and diversify their educations than ever. They can take dual credit courses at local colleges, dig deeper into specific areas of broader fields, and individualize their educational experiences. This is a good thing. But with that diversification has come an erosion of core skills.

GPA vs. ACT score

Many students who are looking to improve their ACT scores are high GPA students. “Why did my son/daughter get a 21? They get straight As!” is a comment I hear often. The answer is pretty simple: the student can have simple conversations in Mandarin or parrot back information from a study guide on the Gilded Age, but they haven’t mastered the core skills–including critical thinking–that success on the test demands.

Critics of the ACT and other standardized tests point blame at the test. It is demographically biased, they say. Or it tests on irrelevant information. These criticisms, however, come from a position of ignorance about the test. It’s not designed to test on everything a student knows. It’s goal is to test a student’s ability to do something with given information.

What do you need to succeed?

Many students’ reaction to the test after taking their first one is, “I didn’t understand the questions.” This is natural, given that students aren’t taught to think through and pay attention to questions in school. NOT and EXCEPT questions are good examples of this. The ACT will often ask ‘Which of the following is NOT…” or “All of the following are acceptable EXCEPT…” Students often struggle with these types of questions because they miss the NOT or EXCEPT–even though the test capitalizes those words!

On the English section of the test, students very often struggle with basic punctuation and grammar skills. This comes directly from the trend of English classes to only grade the content of a student’s work and to ignore the syntax. If you read most students’ essays or papers, you’ll find run-on sentences, fragments, and punctuation errors that tests (and college professors) expect students to know. Even using digital add-ons, like Grammarly, don’t ensure that a paper is correctly constructed. Over my years as an exam prep tutor, I’ve seen students ACT English scores increase 10 points or more once they learn the basics of grammar and punctuation.

How does exam prep fill the gap?

In sum, the fact that ACT averages dropped is troubling. But the concern should be directed less against the test and more about students’ need to build a foundational skill set. This puts the spotlight directly on exam prep and what it does to fill the gap in a student’s educational experience. While our short term goal is for a student to be successful on the ACT, the additional benefits of critical thinking expertise and a solidification of basic skills will stay with that student through college and beyond.