Monday, August 3, 2009

Reading Comprehension Week - Zen Task Standards vs Question Stem

Welcome to Reading Comprehension Week!

Monday through Thursday we'll be discussing the section of the LSAT that is most similar to other verbal components of standardized tests. Later posts will cover how the section has changed since the late 1990s, a graph of the most common question types (or task standards, as we call them at Zen), and how to correct mistakes made on the most important of the 19 task standards.

First off, a succinct definition from Wikipedia, edited to fit within Zen philosophy:

The [LSAT] contains one reading comprehension ("RC") section. In recent exams, the section consists of four passages of 400-500 words, one passage each related to law, arts and humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences, with 5-8 questions per passage [for a total of 26-27 questions out of 100-101 total]. The questions ask the examinee to [analyze the passage's structure, identify explicit evidence mentioned by the author or quoted experts, evaluate the evidence used by the author, identify the tone and opinion of the author or quoted experts, and extrapolate the author's and/or expert's opinions to new situations].

In June 2007, a change was made to the test that replaced one of the four passages with a "comparative reading" [passage]. Comparative reading presents the examinee with two short passages with differing [and/or complementary] perspectives on a topic. The two passages combined are approximately the same length as the removed passage.


While the analytical reasoning games receive much more ballyhoo from test-takers (and test-preppers alike), reading comprehension questions account for an average of 4 more points on a modern LSAT! As an example of the disparity in coverage, "LSAT analytical reasoning" and "LSAT logic games" collectively have almost 200,000 hits on Google, while "LSAT reading comprehension" has fewer than 20,000. That's a misrepresentation of importance by a factor of almost 11!

An oft-overlooked method to improving performance on the LSAT reading comprehension section is a general increase in speed of decoding and analyzing high-quality texts. This Zen 10 list shows you how to use the New York Times as daily prep material for the LSAT, even before you begin your self-study.

Perhaps because of the wide variety of tests that have reading comprehension sections, there are dozens of ways suggested for attacking the LSAT section, while the analytical reasoning sections have fairly standard advice (learn how to diagram).
At Zen, we posit that test prep companies and tutors don't know how to categorize, track, and teach the reading comprehension section, so they focus their efforts where they know they can achieve results.

Which is where standards-based instruction from our experience at Teach For America comes in. While standard reading comprehension strategies--such as using a marking system to highlight relevant text--do help, Zen students break down the section not by passage type or question stem, but by task. You can think of the difference as between telling someone "Driving" and "Drive to the mall and park in front of Best Buy." The former is a gerund posing as a task, whereas Zen provides the imperative phrase - the task - to be performed in order to receive credit for an answer.


After analyzing over 500 individual reading comprehension questions (from TestPreps 19-38 and the three most recent June LSATs), we broke down the section into 19 discrete action verb statements, "task standards," which were then woven with other related tasks into five overarching "strands." Our Zen students then input their test performance into an excel spreadsheet tracker so they can easily see which of the task standards they are performing incorrectly. Because the task standards are not based on arbitrary categories but on desired performance, it is the difference between saying, "This is an evidence-use question" and "I need to underline the expert's opinion on the French Revolution's effects on British opinion of democracy."

Our task standards allow us to clearly delineate, for instance, between "Identify the meaning the author intended for this evidence" and "Determine which part of the author's argument this evidence plays," even though both tasks are prompted by similarly-worded LSAT question stems. As you can see, conflating these two tasks is both easy and damaging; without task standards, do you simply state the author's explicit intent or analyze their argument?

Students who do not use some form of task standards have serious issues transitioning between finding explicit information stated by the author or experts, and the arguments or opinions of the author and experts. They aren't given the skills to recognize when to consider intangible qualities like tone and structure and when to focus solely within the confines of the text, as reading the question stem is insufficient to determine this.

Tomorrow, look for a further breakdown of task strands, and specifically how the density of tasks has changed since the late 1990s.