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Significant 2018-2019 SHSAT ELA Changes

While you were focused on whether there would be an SHSAT exam in three years, most of you didn’t notice the SHSAT ELA exam changed again, and the changes might arguably be more significant than last year’s changes. The new Revise-Edit section (remember it replaced Scrambled Paragraphs and Logical Reasoning in 2017) has now been demoted to an almost trivial portion of the exam. Step up reading! The reading exam just transformed from a ho hum non-fiction test to a potentially challenging reading section with much longer passages that include non-fiction, charts and figures, and poetry. These passages mirror the SAT and ACT, perhaps no surprise to anyone who has followed our site. However, these passages will be challenging on par with the SAT too, which changes the dynamic of the entire ELA—perhaps the entire SHSAT.


What does this mean for you?

 1. Reading will become a key area of differentiation at the same time it becomes more challenging. Let’s face it. The most popular strategy for SAT success for years has been to ace the math and just pass break even on the relatively uninteresting (less challenging) non-fiction reading or verbal section. That strategy underlied the mentality of taking practice test after practice test and books trying to meet that need by becoming little more than a compilation of math practice problems. I would not be surprised if the tables turn somewhat, and a popular strategy becomes acing reading(the new ELA) and trying to break even on math without wasting countless hours learning every variation of geometry problems.

2. Reading cannot be learned the same way as math (or even by the same simple rule set used for the earlier SHSAT reading). You can throw out the SHSAT prep books you just bought. The practice exam after practice exam mentality will not work. Besides, we bought a couple of those books too that say they are for 2018-2019. They’re obsolete. You need to learn the test design—arguably the SAT test design for reading.  Any tutor worth their weight is going to teach you how to take this new test. Our tutoring services use SHSAT experienced instructors from M.I.T. and Harvard at affordable rates. Fortunately, we have designed our online course around this new ELA exam. To get started on a course outline, you will spend less than $50. Click the ELA tab on the homepage and open up a new world of standardized test reading. This year especially, every student will wish they did.

Fictional Passages on the 2018-2019 SHSAT Reading Exam

The inclusion of fictional passages marks a substantial change for the SHSAT ELA exam, more closely mirroring the SAT reading passages. With these changes come new challenges for students that extend beyond merely a new format or writing style—fiction versus non-fiction. There are more questions per passage, each with a different focus than previous reading exams, and the passages are longer. In the past, an ability to read American English and learn a few simple rules was enough to get students through the SHSAT reading while they focused more on math in many cases. In 2018 and beyond, students will need to better understand how to take a standardized reading exam. The good news is the effort will pay rewards down the road. The lessons learned in the TestPrepSHSAT reading course will come in handy for the PSAT and SAT as your students begin college admissions in coming years whether they attend a specialized high school or not.


Three out of six or nearly half of the passages (arguably the more challenging half) for the 2018 SHSAT ELA Reading exam will be in the new fictional formats. Additionally, it is likely at least one of the remaining passages will require students to resolve questions related to related graphs or figures. Several of the passages will have up to 10 questions rather than 6-7 questions per passage on earlier exams. Furthermore, the questions will not always begin with a typical main idea question, and they appear to include rhetorical strategy, words in context, and types of inference questions that did not often appear on earlier exams. (See Reading Question Categories for more details). Let’s take a brief look at some of the new non-fiction passages and related questions you can expect to see. We will progress in order from the least different to the most.

If you find the following passage excerpts from the official 2018-2019 samples harder to read and the questions that follow more challenging, then you are not alone. Like most, you have not yet learned the new skills required to tackle the 2018-2019 SHSAT ELA. There is a reason our reading course is the benchmark for the new exam. We teach students the skills you require. Subscribe now.


#1 Looks almost like a traditional non-fiction expository passage at first blush

  1. The real secret of the beauty and terror of the Falls is not their height or width, but the feeling of colossal power and of unintelligible disaster caused by the plunge of that vast body of water. If that were taken away, there would be little visible change, but the heart would be gone.
  2. The American Falls do not inspire this feeling in the same way as the Canadian. It is because they are less in volume, and because the water does not fall so much into one place. By comparison their beauty is almost delicate and fragile. They are extraordinarily level, one long curtain of lacework and woven foam. Seen from opposite, when the sun is on them, they are blindingly white, and the clouds of spray show dark against them. With both Falls the colour of the water is the ever-altering wonder. Greens and blues, purples and whites, melt into one another, fade, and come again, and change with the changing sun. Sometimes they are as richly diaphanous1as a precious stone, and glow from within with a deep, inexplicable light. Sometimes the white intricacies of dropping foam become opaque and creamy. And always there are the rainbows. If you come suddenly upon the Falls from above, a great double rainbow, very vivid, spanning the extent of spray from top to bottom, is the first thing you see. If you wander along the cliff opposite, a bow springs into being in the American Falls, accompanies you courteously on your walk, dwindles and dies as the mist ends, and awakens again as you reach the Canadian tumult. And the bold traveller who attempts the trip under the American Falls sees, when he dare open his eyes to anything, tiny baby rainbows, some four or five yards in span, leaping from rock to rock among the foam, and gambolling beside him, barely out of hand’s reach, as he goes. One I saw in that place was a complete circle, such as I have never seen before, and so near that I could put my foot on it. It is a terrifying journey, beneath and behind the Falls. The senses are battered and bewildered by the thunder of the water and the assault of wind and spray; or rather, the sound is not of falling water, but merely of falling; a noise of unspecified ruin. So, if you are close behind the endless clamour, the sight cannot recognise liquid in the masses that hurl past. You are dimly and pitifully aware that sheets of light and darkness are falling in great curves in front of you. Dull omnipresent foam washes the face. Farther away, in the roar and hissing, clouds of spray seem literally to slide down some invisible plane of air…


Note the passage begins very much like a non-fiction expository passage about Niagara Falls. However, it transitions from an informative treatise on the falls into the 2nd person (“you) and the first person(“I) in the second paragraph—decidedly less formal in style. The tone and attitude change and the author begins to share his feelings and impressions about the falls. While the main idea remains somewhat more structured like SHSAT non-fiction passages in the past, the casual opinions and descriptive language extend way beyond previous SHSAT passages, and it does so for nearly 1,000 words—more than double the typical SHAT passage length in previous exams. Also note, there are not line numbers given every 5-10 lines. Only paragraphs are numbered, which may create added challenges for students to find relevant information related to questions.

Sample Question: (Function)

Read this sentence from paragraph 3.


These are the lower rapids, a sight more terrifying than the Falls, because less intelligible.


Which statement best describes how the sentence fits into the overall structure of the excerpt?

E. It signals a change from the positive aspects of the Falls to the negative aspects.

F. It indicates a progression from the literal description of the water to a discussion of timeless truths.

G. It highlights a shift from the qualities of the Falls to the qualities of the river.

H. It introduces a contrast between the obvious and the hidden features of the rapids.



#2 Excerpts from a fictional novel


    1. With a lurch the train came to a dead stop and Margaret Earle, hastily gathering up her belongings, hurried down the aisle and got out into the night.
    1. It occurred to her, as she swung her heavy suit-case down the rather long step to the ground, and then carefully swung herself after it, that it was strange that neither conductor, brakeman, nor porter had come to help her off the train, when all three had taken the trouble to tell her that hers was the next station; but she could hear voices up ahead. Perhaps something was the matter with the engine that detained them and they had forgotten her for the moment.
    1. The ground was rough where she stood, and there seemed no sign of a platform. Did they not have platforms in this wild Western land, or was the train so long that her car had stopped before reaching it?
    1. She strained her eyes into the darkness, and tried to make out things from the two or three specks of light that danced about like fireflies in the distance…

The above excerpt from a fiction novel a is a more dramatic departure from previous SHSAT passages. It is not structured or organized like non-fiction passages. The scene will often seem somewhat arbitrary depending on what part of the greater novel was chosen for the excerpt. At first, students will frequently have trouble getting their bearings straight or simply understanding who, what, where, and when everything is taking place. Students will need to learn a new approach to finding the main idea and primary purpose, which may look quite different for a fictional excerpt from a literary source. At the same time, this passage is also nearly 1,000 words or twice the size of the old SHSAT passage, which creates new challenges for students to explore their reading strategy to manage the increase in volume of information for each passage.

Sample Question: (Tone)

In paragraph 2, how does the phrase “when all three had taken the trouble to tell her” affect the tone in the first part of the excerpt?

E. It creates an accusatory tone by suggesting that Margaret believes that others are responsible for her problem.

F. It introduces a defiant tone by suggesting that Margaret left the train early to prove a point.

G. It suggests a frustrated tone by showing that Margaret feels confused by the inconsistent help offered by the railroad employees..

H. It establishes an appreciative tone by showing that Margaret feels cared for by the railroad employees.


#3 Poetry


Higher and still more high,

Palaces made for cloud,

Above the dingy city-roofs

Blue-white like angels with broad wings,

  1. Pillars of the sky at rest

The mountains from the great plateau


But the world heeds them not;

They have been here now for too long a time.

  1. The world makes war on them,

Tunnels their granite cliffs,

Splits down their shining sides,

Plasters their cliffs with soap-advertisements,

Destroys the lonely fragments of their peace…


Last but not least, the new reading exam includes poetry. This fact may send shivers down the spines of many students who fear they will not be able to put themselves into the author’s head and discern the deeper meaning of the poem. As you progress through our reading course, you will soon realize that you have less to fear than you think because you did not understand how a standardized reading exam is designed. The attempt to put yourself in the author’s frame of mind would be impossible let alone fruitless. There is no better example than the following article from a poet who could not understand standardized reading questions about her own poetry


Sample Question: (Rhetorical Strategy)

The description in the first stanza (lines 1–7) helps establish a central idea of the poem by

E. comparing the length of time the mountains have existed with the length of time the city has existed.

F. contrasting the grandeur of the mountains with the structures in the city below them.

G. implying that the mountains are a source of inspiration to the people in the city below.

H. suggesting that the mountains are larger than the people in the city realize


The new SHSAT passages are frequently close to 1,000 words long rather than 400-500 words in typical non-fiction passages. That creates new challenges for the student. Most students approach the reading exam seriously—as you might expect—believing every word and every line is important, so they attempt to digest and hold every part of a passage in their head for the reading exam. That may be possible for a shorter, structured non-fiction passage on the old reading test, but what happens when the passages vary in content and double in size? Just ask any SAT student in high school. That method will eat up precious time like a carnivorous predator. If you do not learn a solid reading strategy, then your scores will suffer.

 All words and lines are not created equal on the standardized reading exam. Students will have to learn to prioritize. They may have to develop new skim reading techniques, which can feel awkward because that is a method often used in school to quickly dispense with material that is less important. Fortunately, our course practices different popular reading strategies rather than giving the concept lip service only. Students will read passages differently and undertake related exercises to get a firm idea of what techniques work best for them.


Graphics or data analysis is a new addition to the 2018-2019 SHSAT ELA Reading exam that also mirrors the SAT. This section can sometimes throw students off their game because they become focused on reading and then have to switch gears to digest a graph or figure and relate it to the reading passage. Fortunately, the correct answer does not always require analysis of both. Each figure has a main idea in its own right just like each paragraph in a passage might have a main idea distinct from the whole passage main idea. Students are not used to thinking about the main idea of a chart, but any decent graphic will tell a story. Think about the graphics you might include in your own schoolwork. The graphics you choose probably demonstrate a larger idea you hope to convey to the reader.


Number of SmartPhones Used by American Teenagers

  • Millions of American Teenagers Using SmartPhones

The above bar chart has a point: it tells the story of the dramatic growth in the use of smartphones by American teenagers. Students can often identify the point by observing the pattern of the bars or lines in a chart. Are they rising? falling? how quickly? If there are several lines do they intersect? diverge? At what point? Figures come in many shapes and forms: bar charts, line charts, pie charts, tables, and even paired figures. Besides diagnosing the story behind the trends and changes in the lines and bars of the graph, there are a few things to keep in mind for graphics. 

Things to Watch For in Figures

  1. The  units or axis measurements are often labeled with unfamiliar or vague names that students often do no fully understand. e.g. Kilojoules or % Effectiveness. Do not be thrown off by the “tricky” names because the name itself is often not relevant. Focus on the magnitudes and numerical values. 
  2. Names aside, do make sure you read all the labels and understand the scope and nature of the information presented.  Wrong answers will often mix up these details without students even recognizing the trick that is being played.

a. Total Amount vs. Change: One answer might present correct figures and trends from the chart but present a reference to changes rather than totals. e.g. Smartphone use among teenagers grew by 45 million in the two years leading up to 2020. That answer option is wrong because the number of smartphones grew to 45 million. The increase was only 45 – 25 = 20 million. Make sure the direction of the change is also correct. A reduction of 20 million would also not describe the graph accurately. Similar differences can occur between amounts and frequencies or probability. A pie chart depicting different groups’ ridership numbers on the subway may say nothing about the likelihood or frequency of that group riding the subway. 

% Ridership of NYC Subways 2019

  • Working Males
  • Working Single Females
  • Unemployed Males
  • Unemployed Females

The following answer option would be incorrect. “Employed males are more likely to take the NYC subway.” The chart presents percentage ridership numbers by group. Total percent values may not be indicative of probability or likelihood or perhaps even frequency.  It might be that employed men are less likely to take the subway, but they outnumber the other groups resulting in their high percentage of total subway ridership. The concepts sound interchangeable, but they are distinct. Pay careful attention to what the graph denotes and what the answer options say.

b. Pay Attention to the Scope: What is the universe covered by the graph? An answer choice that states, “the use of smartphones has grown dramatically around the world,” is not correct in relation to the first chart above. The chart only depicts smartphone use among American teenagers. Likewise, an answer option that indicates, “Employed females ride the NYC subway less frequently on workdays than employed males,” is also incorrect. The chart provides total ridership data for a given period, not workdays. The frequency for any different period, like workdays, may be very different. 

c. General vs. Specific Answers: Suppose you had the following question related to the first bar chart.

Which information best summarizes the information in the graph?

A. More than 20 times the number of American teenagers use smartphones in 2020 than only one decade earlier.

B. Smartphone usage by teenagers increased 150% from 2016 to 2018.

C. The number of current (2020) American teenagers that use smartphones exceeds the combined number of American teenagers who used smartphones throughout the decade leading up to 2020.

D. The growth rate of smartphone usage by American teenagers has been dramatic in the last decade.

All the answers present correct information from the graph, but only one answer choice summarizes the information. The question itself is general in nature. Answer options A to C provide specific details that do not answer the question asked. Only option D presents general language that summarizes the graph. It is not only factually correct but also relevant to the question. That difference can be particularly important for questions that relate the graph to concepts presented in the passage.

d. Paired Figures: Take the following new SHSAT figure and related question.

How does the graph support the ideas in paragraph 8?

A. It indicates how welcome the improvement of long-distance communication was in the United States.

B. It provides evidence of the dramatic increase in the number of telegraph messages as Morse’s system expanded across the United States.

C. It reveals that by the twentieth century millions of people had used the telegraph despite earlier hesitations about the system.

D. It shows how improvements that allowed Morse code to be read in real time made relaying telegraph messages faster and increased the system’s usage.

Paragraph 8:

  1. Soon, as overhead wires connected cities up and down the Atlantic coast, the dots-and-dashes method2 that recorded messages on a long moving strip of paper was replaced by the operator’s ability to interpret the code in real time. . . . Telegraph lines soon extended westward, and within Morse’s own lifetime they connected the continents of Europe and America.

Paired graphics tell a combined story that must be pieced together by both figures unlike simple, individual graphics. That doesn’t mean it is complicated to figure out, but be careful about the details. In this case, the two figures demonstrate expansion geographically and also in the number of messages sent: both ideas supported in paragraph 8 of the passage. The correct answer to the question, option B, seems to lack any mention of international expansion. However, the question asks how the graph supports the ideas in paragraph 8. The next question asks about the map, which is a distinct graphic. The graph is a bar chart depicting only growth in the number of messages sent, and that is the concept supported in paragraph 8, so option B is the right answer.

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