SAT Reading Test Section - Basics

The SAT Reading Test is intended to assist colleges in their evaluation of applicants' ability to learn from written texts, which is obviously an essential skill for postsecondary study in all academic disciplines. Test-takers are presented with reading passages that cover the subject areas of U.S. and world literature, history and social studies, and science. These passages also vary by type, literary technique, and level of difficulty. Students answer multiple choice questions about the passages' meaning (both direct and implied), quality of writing, rhetorical effect, and supporting data.

Features of the SAT Reading Test

The College Board lists the "key features" of the 2016 SAT Reading Test as genre, purpose, subject, and complexity, with two other "important" features: paired passages and informational graphics. The term "genre" refers to texts that are both literary and informational, while "purpose" can be either narrative or argumentative. Examples of specific topics drawn from the three "subject" areas noted above include classic and recent fiction, economics and political science, and chemistry and physics. The "complexity" of reading passages is determined by such factors as amount of information, clarity of purpose, use of metaphor, and sentence structure. "Paired passages" require students to answer questions based on two different sources, and "informational graphics" are used to test students' ability to draw information from charts and tables.

Format of the SAT Reading Test

The SAT Reading Test has a total of 52 questions, for which students are given 65 minutes. The 52 questions are taken from four individual reading passages and one pair of passages, each of which are between 500 and 750 words and can range from 9th grade to basic undergraduate in level of difficulty. History/social studies and science are each the subject of two passages, while literature is covered by one passage, with 10-11 questions per passage. The Reading Test is one of two major components of the overall Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score. Some Reading Test questions also factor into two of the SAT's seven subscores (Command of Evidence and Words in Context) and either of the two cross-test scores (Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science). Not all Reading Test questions count toward subscores, but many of them are an element of one or even two subscores, which range from 1-15 in each area. 42 of the 52 Reading Test questions count toward the overall cross-test scores of 10 to 40 (21 questions for each).

Types of Reading Passages on the SAT Reading Test

2016 SAT Reading Test passages are taken from many different types of sources. Students can expect diversity of textual excerpts in terms of time period, subject matter, author intent, literary style, and literary form. Some sources are historical (such as an excerpt from Elizabeth Cady Stanton's speech to the 1869 Woman Suffrage Convention), while others are contemporary (such as a 2013 article on ethics in economics). Passages in social science disciplines (e.g. urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt's The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City) can be found alongside passages in the hard sciences (such as J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick's early article on DNA). Test-takers should be prepared to handle excerpts from classic fiction (including Charlotte Brontë's The Professor) as well as writings that are primarily arguing a specific viewpoint (for example, Talleyrand's Report on Public Instruction).

Types of Questions on the SAT Reading Test

Questions on the SAT Reading Test are based on a variety of reading comprehension skills. Many test questions ask about the meaning of specific words in the context of the passage. These questions are usually phrased as follows: "In line x, the word y most nearly means ..." Test-takers must then provide the best choice of synonym from a list of four options.

Some questions ask students to find the best supporting evidence for a given proposition from a list of passage excerpts, or to determine the author's reasons for providing certain types of evidence (e.g. "The authors refer to work by others in line 23 in order to ..." or "The authors most likely use the examples in lines 6-12 of the passage to highlight the ...").

In some cases, students must find contradictory evidence for claims made in reading passages. Some questions make reference to graphs or tables, and students must evaluate the information provided in these graphics in the context of the accuracy and purpose of the author's assertions. Broad questions about the overall purpose of a reading passage are also included, such as "The central claim of the passage is that ..." or "The main purpose of the passage is to ..." Questions on paired reading passages often ask about relationships between the excerpts. For example, passage 2 may refute evidence provided in passage 1, the passages may reinforce each other using different rhetorical techniques, or the authors may agree on some points but disagree on others.