Standardized admissions tests ranging from high school tests like the SSAT and ISEE to college exams like the SAT and ACT to even graduate school tests like the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT all share the same notorious reputation for lots of traps. This seems unfair somehow to those who find the depth and breadth of the reading, writing, and math content challenging enough. However, in the wild world of norm-referenced assessments, difficulty begins with content and weaves through a veritable obstacle course of constraints and pitfalls. Traps on tests are a feature, not a bug.
WHY EXACTLY DO TEST ITEMS INCLUDE TRAPS?
Standardized admissions exams are designed to rank large groups of testers–millions per year in the cases of the SAT and ACT–along the standard distribution. Most test takers should fall within the big part of the bell curve, huddled one standard deviation or so from the mean. For these tests to deliver the required results, only the smallest fraction of one percent of test takers can get every question right or every question wrong. Yet, test makers are constrained by the requirement to share all salient information about a high-stakes standardized exam in advance, including but not limited to content, timing, rules, and question types. So how would you, knowing that test takers have complete access to everything on the test ahead of time, ensure that even well-prepared testers answered questions incorrectly? Oh yeah, traps!
WHAT KIND OF TRAPS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
When David Mamet asserted, “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance,” he must have been thinking of the makers of the SAT and ACT. College Board was founded way back in 1899, although the SAT wasn’t administered until 1926–nearly 100 years ago. ACT, at more than 60 years old, is comparatively young but still possessed of decades of insight into the kinds of mistakes teens tend to fall for. Both organizations leverage every trick in an overstuffed book to intimidate, confuse, and mislead test takers across every element of a test item:
- Question stems that include extraneous information, esoteric formulas, or unfamiliar terminology
- Question stems phrased as a negative (e.g. Which of the following alternatives would NOT be acceptable?)
- Problems that ask for one value but require the solution of a different value or some combination of values
- Answer choices that are half right (which is still all wrong)
- Answer choices that may be technically correct but not as right as other choices
- Answer choices that provide accurate information outside the scope of a passage
- Answer choices that offer the result of an intermediate step in a solution process
These common snares represent only some of the cornucopia of complexity that awaits each unsuspecting test taker. Different question types always include traps specific to their structure or content along with the more general, tried-and-true catch-alls. Test designers may not be sadistic but they are imaginative, ingenious, and, above all, practical: if a trap works once, you will see it again. But all of this trickery serves the noble goal of presenting an assessment challenging enough that only the most focused, attentive, and prepared test takers earn perfect scores or anywhere close to it.
HOW SHOULD TEST TAKERS DEAL WITH TRAPS?
If your best friend told you that one seat in your house was trapped, you’d probably sit very carefully until you discovered it. Now that you know that nearly every item on every section of one of the classic admissions tests includes traps, you should approach the exam with the same level of wary attention. Always look for the traps so that you can avoid them. But be sharp: if you don’t see the trap… you are probably in it!