Last week, the results of the September 2017 LSAT were released. The feedback we have received from students has been quite mixed, with only a few consensus observations so far. We previously broke down the Logical Reasoning section of the test last week and the scoring scale yesterday, and will be addressing the Logic Games section in the next couple of days.
The September 2017 Reading Comprehension section, while not as difficult overall as the June 2017 RC section, could be seen as more top heavy. Passage 3 was just plain brutal. Not only was it by far the most difficult passage on the section, it was also the most heavily weighted, with 8 total questions. The remaining passages did not really contain any standouts, difficulty-wise. There is probably a healthy debate as to where each ranks in relation to the others, but Passage 2 does appear to be slightly easier than the other two. One thing most would agree on however: Passage 3 stands out markedly from all the rest.
In his discussion of the scoring scale yesterday, Jon noted how the September test had a historically tight scoring scale toward the middle scores, indicating a comparatively easier test at that score range (especially when compared to June). He also noted a much more forgiving scale at the upper end of the scoring scale, indicating a somewhat more punishing test toward the upper scores. In a way, the Reading Comprehension section appeared to illustrate this trend very well. While three of the passages were fairly reasonable, and provided ample opportunity to log a good number of correct answers, test takers who generally score high on Reading Comprehension may have found the section more difficult to log the high scores that they were used to, mainly due to the extreme difficulty of Passage 3. So, in other words, while it may have been easier than usual to answer 18 out of 27 questions on this section, it might have also been more difficult to answer 23 or 24 questions correctly out of 27 than on a typical RC section.
Anyway, without further ado, some highlights…
Passage 1: Science – Ecology (7 questions)
For many people, the thought of leading off a Reading Comprehension section with a 7-question Science passage sounds far from ideal. But unlike the June test, where (one of) the Science passage(s) was probably the toughest passage on the test, Passage 1 here was far from the most difficult. This was a pretty soft Science passage, dealing with ecology and the economics of forest preservation. None of the scientific discussion went too deep, and the passage was nowhere near the level of abstraction of the Psychology passage back in June. Thus, following the academic side of this passage was probably easier than many science passages in the past few years.
The author did contrast different views regarding forest preservation here, and at times, keeping these positions straight could be challenging. But overall, the questions did not really press this aspect of the passage as much as they probably could have. In fact, aside from Question 2, all of the Viewpoint driven questions concerned only the author’s position.
While individual opinions about the questions and their difficulty may vary, two notable questions can be found in Question 4 (Parallel Reasoning) and Question 7. The Parallel Reasoning question in #4 certainly slowed things down a bit. Thankfully, this was only one of two Parallel questions on the entire section. That was a welcome change from June, which had a whopping 4 Parallel questions on the Reading Comprehension section. Question 7, on the other hand, does not appear to be inherently difficult in its construction, but the correct answer did draw an inference about water based transportation, which seemed like new information. It drew this inference from a seemingly inconsequential fact about rivers clogged with silt, which was buried in the initial information at the start of the passage. It is not surprising to see this tricky question last, which might leave a negative impression for takers as they move on to the second passage (and for many, this might be a question they dwell on for far too long).
Passage 2: Diversity – Language Studies (6 questions)
Passage 2 was arguably the easiest passage on this section. Here we had the Diversity passage, which focused on the study and preservation of Native American languages. Not surprisingly, the author takes an interested, sympathetic attitude towards the efforts to preserve Native languages. Specifically, much of the passage is devoted to the use of the radio, which the author finds effective (under most circumstances) in capturing the essence of these languages due to the strong oral traditions of many Native cultures.
Only 6 questions followed Passage 2. These too were probably easier overall than the questions in Passage 1. Question 11 was a bit more long winded, and therefore slowed things down compared to the other questions (much as Question 4 did in the previous passage. It is interesting that both passages contained a “long-winded” question fourth). But otherwise, there were no real standouts here.
In many respects, September’s Reading Comprehension section was a Bizarro version of June’s. The first two passages were arguably the two hardest in June, while they were arguably the two easiest in September (individual assessments will vary, but most would argue Passage 2 in June was the hardest, while Passage 2 in September was the easiest). But whereas June followed up with a small, 6 question easy passage in Passage 3, September followed up with…
Passage 3: Legal – Comparative Reading (8 questions)
Gadzooks! What just happened?
On test day, all I kept hearing about from students after the test was “Passage 3.” This passage left an impression. It was arguably the highlight (or lowlight, depending on how you look at it) of the entire test. We talk often in our courses about Killer Games in Logic Games, but Passage 3 is more like a killer passage. And frankly, like Killer Games, the key to this section for most folks was not so much how one did with this passage, per se, but rather how well they managed this passage. How much did the difficulty of this passage affect the difficulty of other passages?
It was very easy to get carried away here, spending far too much time with it, to little avail, and running out of time for Passage 4. That could prove disastrous. This passage undoubtedly took more than 8:45 for most people to do. However, unless one had a surplus of time built up from the first two passages, it’s unlikely they would have too much additional time to devote here. The bottom line is that strategic decisions and time management became paramount with this passage, and could really determine one’s overall success with the section. Some folks may have escaped the passage with minimal damage, and may not have found it too bad. Many did, however.
The difficulty of Passage 3 was apparent throughout. Both of the comparative passages were difficult to follow, and the questions were very difficult to answer. The topic, at first glance, seemed pretty straightforward. Here, the passage spoke about honesty and candor in judicial opinions. Author A began with the all-too-familiar “some people argue…” structure which was key in noting Author A’s ultimate position. The legal theorists at the start of the passage rejected that judges must believe what they say. This implied that Author A believed that, in fact, judges should believe what they say. While this view was never explicitly stated in Passage A, it could be gleaned out of the text. The author only ever actually said that there were two ways of defending judicial sincerity, not that it should be defended. This latter aspect of his/her argument was much more implied, but was still a key part of the argument.
Author B also adhered to this view that judges should believe what they say in their opinions. Once again, the text proved a bit elusive in nailing down this viewpoint. However, Author B conveyed this view by posing the text question in the first paragraph and answering it immediately: “But must judges actually believe the reasons they give? There are reasons to think so.” The author used additional text questions in Passage B, the answers to which also came up in some of the questions.
So, both passages contained some elusive viewpoints and utilized very indirect methods for establishing these views. On top of that, the questions truly hammered away at these views and many of their subtle aspects. 7 out of the 8 questions required the reader to directly compare the passages and identify some common element or distinction between the two. Only one question, Question 21, was targeted toward just one individual passage. And while that may seem like a welcome respite, Question 21 was actually the second Parallel Reasoning question on the section and was arguably the most difficult question on Passage 3. However, many test takers could probably find other contenders for that honor, as many found all of these questions (or at the very least most of these questions), as well as the passage overall, very challenging.
Passage 4: Humanities – History (6 questions)
The section closed with Passage 4, a 6-question Humanities passage dealing with History. Here, the author described the use of “grand theories”, such as Freudianism and Marxism, to explain historical phenomena. The author argued that, while attractive, these theories ultimately hamper the study of history by being too rigid. They fail to take account of unique events that don’t fit neatly into such universal, deterministic rules.
While this passage was not too terribly difficult overall, the likelihood that test takers were forced to work this passage under duress was fairly high due to the very difficult nature of Passage 3. Many folks might have had far less than 8 or 9 minutes to complete this passage, which could hurry their work and affect their performance. Because of this, Passage 4 was likely to seem much more difficult than it really was. But overall, the passage was relatively mild. The final paragraph was much more long winded and difficult to follow (and three of the six questions were drawn from it). Question 26 was a rather sneaky question that seemed fairly easy on its face, but was actually easy to miss. Much of this was due to the fact that students are likely hurrying to get in under the clock by the time they reach the end of the section.
So, by most accounts, September’s Reading Comprehension section played a bit easier than June. Passage 3 was a notable standout, a very difficult passage on any test. This probably made elite scores on this section more difficult to come by, yet due to the relative mildness of the other three passages, the overall difficulty of the section was probably fairly reasonable. However, strategic decisions, especially concerning the third passage, could have a notable effect on overall performance.