Thursday, August 6, 2009

Reading Comprehension Task Standard - Cite Explicit Evidence

It's the end of Reading Comprehension Week!

Today we’ll wrap up our introduction to the reading comprehension section of the LSAT with how to answer a few questions from the June 2007 sample LSAT. We chose the questions because they are one of the most prevalent of the 19 reading comprehension task standards: citing evidence explicitly mentioned by the author or quoted expert.

As discussed earlier this week, we analyzed over 500 individual reading comprehension questions from the 1996-2002 and 2007-2009 LSATs in order to develop our system of task standards. These task standards are the 19 different prompts the LSAT gives a test taker during the reading comprehension sections. The most prevalent of these task standards in the 2007-2009 LSATs was evaluating statements to see if they fit within the author's point of view.

However, the most prevalent standard throughout all modern LSATs is citing explicit evidence. While this task standard is relatively easy to identify—it is often prompted with some variant on "according to the passage/author/quoted expert"—the LSAT makes the task difficult with distracting answer choices that are (often valid) inferences from the text. Because these extensions of the text are part of what "good readers" do anyway, the LSAT punishes these readers for being unable to distinguish between what is written, and what they read.

As you can see from the graph, the entire task strand of “Identify Explicit Evidence” was asked the second most often, after "Extrapolate from the Passage." However, within its task strand, citing explicit evidence accounts for more than 60% of the strand's point distribution.

The ~60% market share within the task strand, which in turn makes up ~25% of reading comprehension sections, translates into an average of more than 4 questions on each of the June 2007-2009 LSATs. Those 4 points make the difference between a score in the 99th percentile and a 168! LSAC values this task standard as a valuable predictor of performance in law school, as the skills required to differentiate between implied and explicit information from texts and arguments is vital for lawyering.

Here are two examples for how to identify and complete this tricky task, taken from
the June 2007 LSAT. This first one is a textbook example of finding information directly in the text, where the question stem has the keyphrase "according to the passage" and each of the incorrect answer choices begins with an inference rather than explicit evidence.

In this question, the LSAT is asking you to find (or, ideally, recall) which answer choice was explicitly stated in the passage. Using the signposts from the question stem, specifically "U.S." and "widely held view," the test-taker is expected to reference the first paragraph and match the referents as we have by color.

While the evidence is clearly laid out, it does require some processing: the test-taker is expected to understand that because U.S. stakeholders consider narrative and character the "stock-in-trade of fiction," that means poetry is to keep its hands off and focus solely on its elliptical and lyrical emotion-states. This mutual exclusivity is stated, not implied, yet still requires the reader to understand the context and meaning of the author.

This example is in contrast to the “Identify Implied Information” task standard, which requires the test-taker to not only find the explicit evidence, but combine it with the author's tone and the passage's overall context to make new logical deductions. While this task is clearly marked by a distinct question stem--such as "The passage most strongly implies which one of the following?"--both tasks have distracting answers that satisfy the other task.

Now you can see why LSAT tutors and self-studiers alike become frustrated when trying to determine when to incorporate implied evidence while answering reading comprehension questions. This second example is a much more complicated task of identifying explicit evidence, as two of the answer choices are valid inferences.

By referencing back to the text, the correct answer, (E), hones in on the specific statement that the purpose of answering machine greetings are for anyone who calls the number associated with the machine.

The two inference distractors, however, capitalize on the "good reader's" ability to flesh out the analogy drawn between answering machines and websites to include the fact that they are both electronic and immediate.

In order to correctly answer this question, the test-taker must identify the task prompted by the LSAT and then distinguish between their understanding of the text and the text itself. This is why our Zen students practice identifying the source of their understanding of a passage, namely between valid inferences and explicit evidence.