Friday, October 30, 2009

Self-reflection and Constant Improvement

One of the things that I like most about Teach For America is the cultural willingness to admit when things are not optimal and should be changed. While some of this boils down to nitty-gritty surveys and bureaucratic resistance to changes, I honestly feel that the vast majority of Teach For America departments are working constantly to improve their operation. The unified vision of eliminating educational inequity helps provide an inherent rubric for this change: if it doesn't cause us to find, place, train, and retain the best teachers possible in the most needy classrooms, then it's not on target.

As part of refining the Zen of 180 system into a full-fledged online LSAT diagnostic tool, I've been trying to apply Teach For America's philosophy of constant improvement to the Zen task standards, especially in regard to the reading comprehension and analytical reasoning sections (which I'll cover next week).

For today I'll focus on reading comprehension:
  1. Many LSAT test-prep companies separate passages by the four different content areas: humanities, law, science, and social science.
I find this system for LSAT prep to be at best unhelpful, at worst misleading. Although there's an academic expectation that students are unable to deeply grasp both the sciences and humanities, there's no reason that a diagnostic system for the LSAT should unquestioningly take on that artifact without data to prove it is relevant.
While science vocabulary may add a superficial level of difficulty for a French major, from working with a variety of clients and analyzing their mistakes I've determined that what often causes the mistakes is the passage's structure and purpose, not the content itself.

That is, there are several different purposes utilized in LSAT reading comprehension passages, and the structure is almost always built around that purpose.
  1. Expository - the author is solely trying to explain the relevant portions of a topic
  2. Transition - the author describes how a topic has changed
  3. Debate - the author outlines at least two viewpoints, oftentimes favoring one
  4. Opinion - the author presents a topic in order to deliver an opinion
Usually, although not always, the science passages map onto expository purpose and structure. In my opinion, this pseudo-symbiosis between content and structure, which extends to a lesser degree in the other content/structure pairs, has led many test-prep companies to mistakenly assign the mistake's cause on the content rather than the true weakness, analyzing a particular structure.

A recent client was adamantly in the "content matters" camp, referencing her poor performance on science passages and her generally strong performance on humanities passages. When I pointed out that she not only sometimes excelled at science passages--which "happened" to have an opinion structure--and bombed on humanities passages--"surprisingly" with an expository structure--she admitted that maybe there was something to this new classification system.

Once I started exploring this new way of categorizing LSAT reading comprehension passages, I discovered another perfect use of the system: eliminating distractors for many of the task standards. That is, the test-writers formulaicly distract test-takers with the
correct content but within the incorrect structure. By examining the different kinds of passage structure, my clients have a much easier time eliminating distractors in not only passage structure tasks, but also in extrapolation. This makes sense: if you can't accurately define what the starting point is, its very difficult to say what the author would or would not agree with.

If you have a strong opinion about the content versus structure debate, or would like to suggest another taxonomy, please comment on the post.