There’s a strange type of question that has popped up a couple of times on the new SAT exams.  A couple of questions on science passages in the reading comp section have asked about an “assumption” made by the authors/researchers in the passage.

Even some of my strongest students tend to struggle with these questions, so I think it would be a good idea to go over what an “assumption” guiding scientific research might be, in the context of these reading comp passages.

The first example is from SAT practice test 3, where the last passage is talking about honeybees and some sort of mite problem they get (another page-turner from the Collegeboard).

I won’t make you read the whole passage just to follow along with this post, but the relevant part of the passage is as follows:

This hypothesis can best be tested at trial, wherein a small portion of honeybees are offered a number of pyrethrum producing plants, as well as a typical bee food source such as clover, while controls are offered only the clover.  Mites could then be introduced to each hive with note made as to choice of bees, and the effect of mite infestations on experimental groups and controls.

And then question 49 asks:

An unstated assumption made by the authors about clover is that it

(a)does not produce pyrethrum

(b)are members of the Chrysanthemum genus

(c) are usually located near wild-type honeybee colonies

(d) will not be a good food source for honeybees in the control colonies

Ok, lets think about the experiment they’re proposing.  Basically they want to test the effect that pyrethrum has on bees.  And the way they’re going to do that is they’re going to give some bees pyrethrum producing plants AND clover, and the control group they’re only going to give clover.

Well, imagine you had to design an experiment to test whether pyrethrum has an effect on bees.  How would you set it up?  Most people would probably think “OK, let’s give some bees pyrethrum, and let’s not give some other bees pyrethrum, and see what the difference is.”  Pretty reasonable right?

Seems like what our authors are assuming if they’re giving some bees only clover is that clover does not have pyrethrum.  Right?  Because if clover also has pyrethrum their experiment wouldn’t make any sense.  It would be like saying “We’re going to test the effect that eating citrus fruit has on rats’ memory, so some rats we’re going to feed oranges AND lemons, but the control group we’re going to feed only lemons.”  The problem with that experiment should be pretty obvious, right?  We need our control group not to have the thing that we’re supposed to be testing, so this is what’s going on here.

Certainly not the easiest question, but the good news is that I’ve only seen two or three of these so far on the previous 8 SATs, and this one was the hardest.

Also worth noting, I think, is that even if ALL of this assumption business still doesn’t make sense to you, we should be able to at the very least eliminate answers (B) and (C) from the above question, as nowhere in that little excerpt about clover do we mention anything remotely comparable to Chrysanthemums or wild-type bee colonies.  Always remember, with reading comp we don’t need to “figure out” the answers, we just need to find them in the passage.

Till next time!

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